Winnipeg – a shining beacon from Etobicoke to Afghanistan

She appeared before me like an oasis — attractive, petite and most importantly, a woman. Not just any woman, a civilian woman.

Canadian Forces member reflects on a city close to his heart — and others

David Grebstad used to live in Winnipeg's Osborne Village. (CBC)

She appeared before me like an oasis attractive, petite and most importantly, a woman. Not just any woman, a civilian woman.

I shielded my eyes from the blazing Afghanistan sun and turned my attention away from cleaning my rifle to listen to her question, “Can you tell me where C Company is?”

Fortunately for me, I was living in the part of the Canadian camp reserved for Combat Support Company of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. 

C Company was a bit further down the path. Being a gentleman and smitten by the first contact I’d had with a civilian woman in months, I volunteered to escort her to her destination.

It was the spring of 2002.

I was a lowly artillery captain serving as a forward observer on Operation Apollo.

She was Nahlah Ayed, a CBC reporter covering the conflict in Afghanistan from Kandahar and destined to go on to big things at the CBC.

As I walked her to C Company we discussed the unique bond, other than the searing Kandahar heat, that linked us – Winnipeg.

Nahlah Ayed is from Winnipeg. At the time, I had been living in Shilo, Man., for two years.

Previous to that, I had lived for eight years in Winnipeg – four years in residence at U of M, four in an apartment in Fort Richmond, a year in an impossibly small house in St. Boniface with my best friend, his wife and their one-year-old son and finally a year in a character apartment on Stradbrook Avenue in Osborne Village.

As it turns out, Ms. Ayed had lived mere minutes away from me in the Village. 

After dropping her off with my colleagues in C Company, who, incidentally, had come from the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Pats, which, at the time, still resided in Winnipeg, I wondered if she and I had ever crossed paths before.

Did we sit across from each other in Papa George’s? Did I stand behind her in line at the Safeway on River Avenue? Did we rub elbows at the bar in the Toad in the Hole Pub?

Although born in Dryden, Ont., I consider Winnipeg my home town.

As my military service has taken me across Canada and around the world, I am always happy to bump into a fellow Winnipegger.

Whether it’s the couple from the ‘Peg transplanted to Toronto, who I met watching the Blue Bombers play the Toronto Argonauts, a fellow student at the Canadian Forces College or even a CBC reporter in Kandahar, when one identifies a fellow Winnipegger, it’s like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen for years.

And that’s because the paradox that is Winnipeg will always make it a place that endures in your heart. Where else can you see the silent beauty of the nineteenth century architecture of the Exchange District, feel the history of millennia of human evolution at the Forks, stare agape at the beauty and magnificence of the legislative building or watch the sun set on a sea of wheat gently shimmering in the breeze?

Contrarily, where else do you find the squadrons of helicopter-sized mosquitoes, the Pluto-esque temperatures of winter, rendered even worse by the biting wind that cuts to the soul or the slowly dying beauty of the downtown core -- a garden of potential choked by the weeds of crime and poverty? Winnipeg is a city of extremes that imprints itself like no other place on earth.

Unfortunately, many of my friends from Winnipeg, while waxing nostalgic about the city, are glad to be rid of it.

The “bad” extremes of Winnipeg, in their mind, far outweigh the good.

This is unfortunate as Winnipeg is, truly, one great city.

Winnipeggers need to lose their inferiority complex and love the city for what it is and what it offers. It is a treasure trove of history, a crossroad of societies and an El Dorado of modern arts and culture.

When I relate to my colleagues who have never set foot in Winnipeg that I would like to return there, I am met with expressions of incredulity.

This is particularly manifest in my friends in Toronto who cannot possibly fathom why I would want to live anywhere but the epicenter of the universe.

The ill-informed and uninitiated don’t know what Winnipeg has to offer.

Unfortunately, those in Winnipeg yearning to leave don’t know what they’ll be missing. But stay or go, Winnipeg will imprint itself on your psyche and your soul, and wherever you go, you will always belong to that small but vibrant community that has called Winnipeg home.

David Grebstad is a former Winnipegger, amateur historian and a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces living in Etobicoke, Ont.


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