Hé Ho: Festival du Voyageur Highlights

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Hé Ho: Festival du Voyageur Highlights

The “joie de vivre” of Festival du Voyageur, Winnipeg, Manitoba’s winter festival

For 10 days every February since 1970, festival spirit takes over St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French Quarter, as Festival du Voyageur gets under way. Festival (said with the accent on the last syllable which is pronounced “val”) is the largest winter festival in Western Canada. It celebrates French-Canadian culture and the history of voyageurs and Métis and First Nations peoples. 

Festival du Voyageur: Voyageur Park
On the grounds of Voyageur Park

Music, traditional cuisine, winter activities, historical interpretations and entertaining shows are all part of Festival. Events and activities take place at ten official sites with Voyageur Park, located at Whittier Park, being the centre of many activities. The smell of wood fires and the sounds of fiddle music fill the grounds.

Festival du Voyageur: campfire
One of the many outdoor fires to warm up around


The voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trade years. Voyageur means “traveller” in French. The voyageurs were hired by trading companies to transport furs and other goods.

Fort Gibraltar, located within Voyageur Park, is a reconstruction of a North West Company trading post originally built at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in 1809-1810. There was intense and sometimes violent rivalry among the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company and independent traders. Competition ended in 1821 when the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with its competitors. The competitions and contests which take place as part of Festival du Voyageur are of a much friendlier nature.

Festival du Voyageur interpreters at Fort Gibraltar cabin
Inside the housing cabin at Fort Gibraltar

During Festival, costumed interpreters at Fort Gibraltar bring the spirit of the fur trade era to life.

Festival du Voyageur: stone oven at Fort Gibraltar

On one of my visits, an interpreter in front of an outdoor wood-burning stone oven talked to a group of Festival-goers about the intricacies of cooking in that type of oven. The fire needs to be keep burning, but for most dishes needs to have died down to almost an ember. Long-simmering foods are cooked in pots set away from the direct flame. Food can get too dry. Wrapping meats in pastry before cooking was one mechanism used to seal in moisture.

Festival du Voyageur: traditional craftsman
Demonstrations of traditional crafts:
a blacksmith, a snowshoe maker, forging shot (bullets) in fire

Note that Fort Gibraltar, complete with costumed interpreters, is also open during the summer months.

Festival du Voyageur sash
Ceinture fléchée and Festival-logo mittens for sale

The voyageurs wore brightly coloured sashes around their midsection to carry their belonging. The ceinture fléchée (translated as “arrowed sash”) was made of wool using a finger weaving technique. The sash could also be used as a small rope to carry objects. Today this piece of traditional French-Canadian clothing is a symbol of French Canadian and Métis culture, and part of the Festival “costume”.


Music at Festival du Voyageur

Music is present wherever you go at Festival. With over 150 artists, each specialty tent and every Festival venue features entertainment. You can’t help but smile and tap your toes, or perhaps even get up to dance, when you hear traditional fiddle music. Other concerts feature more contemporary French-Canadian music.

Festival du Voyagery; jigging contest
Jigging contest

The fiddle was the most common instrument played in the days of the voyageurs. At Festival, amateurs can get involved with the music at fiddling and jigging contests. I arrived at the jigging contest just as they were beginning the over age 60 category. I’ve never jigged and did not sign up. However, lack of jigging experience didn’t stop the Festival mascot from getting on stage.

Festival du Voyageur mascot does a jig


What is a festival without food? Food is available at several locations in Voyageur Park and at other Festival venues. Traditional choices include tourtière (a savoury meat pie), pea soup and maple syrup sugar pie. You can also get baked beans, bison on bannock (a variety of flatbread made by indigenous North Americans), pulled pork, and pancakes. And, of course, there is poutine, a dish originating in Québec made with French fries and cheese curds and topped with gravy. These days, variations on traditional poutine are made by adding other ingredients. Variations available at Festival were made with the addition of bacon, pulled pork, or perogies. Other food treats include maple taffy and beavertails, a fried dough pastry stretched to resemble a beavertail. Hot dogs and hamburgers and other fare are also available.

If you are looking to try a traditional drink, have a Caribou. Caribou is a fortified wine drink made with red wine, whiskey and maple syrup. The origins of the drink go back to hunters and trappers who drank caribou blood mixed with alcohol to counter the cold weather.

Festival du Voyageur food: tourtiere and pea soup
Tourtière with maple cream sauce and pea soup
Festival dy Voyageur taffy shack line-up
The Maple Snow Taffy shack is popular.
Here you get a popsicle stick and roll your own taffy onto it.

Festival du Voyageur: roasting marshmallows

Festival du Voyageur

Fun and GamesSnowshoeing is one of activities at Festival du Voyageur

There are snowshoe adventures, a children’s outdoor playground and a children’s activity tent at Voyageur Park. Voyageur games at another venue include leg wrestling, voyageur wrestling, pillow fights, tugs of war and log sawing. Contests and competitions include the fiddling and jigging contests already mentioned and a beard-growing contest. Clean-shaven contestants sign up in mid-December and then let their beard grow naturally for 10 weeks until start of Festival du Voyageur. During that time, contestants collect pledges for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Categories for winning include an open category for most creative, voyageur category for longest and thickest, and a novelty category in which you are allowed to use hair-styling products to shape your beard. In 2017, a Frosty Beard Face bonus category was added, where beards were thickened with a layer of frost.

Other competitions include the Wood Carving Challenge and the International Snow Sculpture Symposium.

Festival du Voyageur sleigh rides
And there are sleigh rides

Wood Carving Challenge

Wood Carving Challenge at Festival du Voyageur

The Wood Carving Challenge, presented in partnership with the Winnipeg River Chainsaw Carving Association, was a new addition to the 2017 Festival. Six internationally renowned teams used chainsaws to create large art pieces from wood. The pieces were sold at an auction.Wood sculptures from the Festival du Voyageur Wood Carving Challenge

Snow Sculptures

Festival du Voyageur snow sculpture

Every February, snow sculptures pop up across the city of Winnipeg in honour of Festival du Voyageur. Festival also holds an International Snow Sculpting Symposium on the grounds of Voyageur Park. Teams from all over the world compete. Unfortunately, my photos from the 2017 year don’t properly showcase these beautiful sculpture as unusually mild weather that year resulting in melting.

Festival du Voyageur snow sculptures starting to melt
Snow sculptures on the first Saturday starting to melt
Festival du Voyageur snow sculpture
By the second Saturday, this was the only sculpture still standing.

The mild temperatures at the start of 2017 Festival du Voyageur may have melted snow sculptures and created some slushy walking conditions (festival staff filled puddles with wood chips to make walking easier and safer), but it didn’t dampen attendees’ joie de vivre.

Joie de Vivre

“Joie de vivre” is a French phrase for exuberant enjoyment of life, something very present at Festival.

Festival du Voyageur attendees
A group from Minnesota, representing the St. Paul Winter Carnival, posed for me
Costumes at Festival du Voyageur
Colourful costumes
Man on stilts at Festival du Voyageur
A bit of fun

When Festival comes around, don a ceinture fléchée and take in the fun with exuberance. You may wish to brush up on your French, but understanding French is not necessary to enjoy Festival du Voyageur. Just be prepared to enthusiastically yell out the Festival cheer “Hé Ho”, pronounced “hay hoe.”

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Highlights of Festival du Voyageur in Winnipeg, Manitoba, western Canada's largest winter festival. Experience French Canadian culture and the joie de vivre of the voyaguer. #Winnipeg #Manitoba #Canada #festival #winter #FrencCanadianculture

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  1. Must be a terrific atmosphere. I’m trying to imagine sitting out in the snow, warmed by the heat and the smell of a wood fire and listening to fiddle music. Last summer I attended the New France Festival in Quebec which in some ways was similar.

    1. Ken, I haven’t been to the New France Festival but I suspect they would be a number of similarities.

  2. I was sad not to get to Festival this year. Thanks for the history on caribou. I always wondered about the origin. Nothing tastes better on a frosty night at the ice bar. Although, not too frosty with all of the Winnipeg melting this year.

    1. Deb, I hadn’t made it to Festival in a lot of years so it was great to be able to take in a little bit of it this winter.

  3. What an interesting post, Donna! I’d never heard of this, let alone seen any photos of it. A most interesting event . . .did they need to bring snow in for the sculptures? It didn’t seem like there was enough on the ground to have that large a pieces of art.

    1. Jackie, we actually had quite a bit of snow before the warm spell started so I don’t think they needed to bring in any to create the large blocks they start the sculptures from.

  4. I used to attend the Festival du Voyager when I lived in Winnipeg and remember some great times. I don’t remember drinking Caribou though – I wonder if it is a new addition? I love those ice sculptures…fab photos

    1. Thanks Michele. I don’t remember having Caribou at Festival years ago either, but then I visited with young children and didn’t go to the bar tent. So I’m not sure how long it’s been available there.

  5. Food, music, art, fun — He Ho Festival looks like another good reason for me to return to Winnipeg. I had a short very short time there in September and loved it. Maybe my next visit should be in winter for the festival.

    1. Cathy, I’ve been exploring my home city extensively over the past few years and discovering how great it really is. This is the first winter I’ve been home in several years and it’s been fun to see the winter activities.

    1. Yasha, it was quite mild this year, especially the first weekend and being outside was quite enjoyable. Although the definition of mild is relative and may mean different things to different people. You might be happier on the indoor parties.

  6. Super post, Donna. I love Festival du Voyageur. Thx for reminding me about the Caribou drink! We used to purchase a bottle every Festival season, but seem to have fallen off that habit. I will look for it the next time I am in the MLCC. Such a shame that the snow sculptures melted. We’ve had such crazy weather this year!

  7. I was pretty impressed with The Festival du Voyageur. It looks much more fun than the Quebec Winter Carnival and certainly much bigger! I can’t believe all the things that were happening during the 10 days. I love how our Canadian heritage and history is shared and every time I read your posts, I learn a little bit more about our country.

    1. Janice, there is a lot going on during Festival. I wasn’t sure how I could write about it all in one post.

  8. Looks like so much fun! Of course I’d love to sample all that delicious food. I’ll also let you in on a secret I love mascots. I’d have to get a selfie with the fest mascot to make the visit complete.

  9. This sounds amazing! Red Lodge, Montana has a great winter festival, but this one has to be oodles and acres bigger! The diversity of activities seems to provide something for everyone. Thanks so much for making me aware.