Welcome to Winnipeg, mates! Group from Australia in town to experience winter

A group of 28 Australians and one New Zealander are in Winnipeg this week to get a taste of what a Winnipeg winter feels like.

The group are travelling with a cultural exchange organization called Friendship Force

A group including 28 people from Australia, one from New Zealand and two from Alberta has come to Winnipeg as part of Friendship Force, an international exchange program. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

A group of 28 Australians, one New Zealander and two tag-alongs from Alberta (who might have misread a pamphlet) are in Winnipeg this week to get a taste of what a Winnipeg winter feels like.

"I've noticed that Winnipeg is awful flat. We don't get that back home. It's a lot of hills back home. So it was really unique just landing. It felt like I was landing on the moon,"  said 18-year-old Lachlan Doohan, from Gold Coast — a city on Australia's east coast, just south of Brisbane.

"Everyone before I left was saying [the temperature would be] -40, so that was my impression. But yeah, just lots of snow," he said.

"It's actually quite hot at the moment," he said of the balmy 1 C high this afternoon.

The group are part of Friendship Force, an international cultural exchange organization. They will be staying with Winnipeg hosts and taking part in a number of winter activities around town until next Wednesday.

Lachlan Doohan, left, and his grandmother, Robin Doohan, have both travelled with Friendship Force many times. They say it allows them to experience the culture like a local instead of as a tourist. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Doohan is travelling with his cousin and grandparents. Robin Doohan, his grandmother, has been a member of Friendship Force for 21 years, and has taken three trips every year with the group since joining.

Thursday was their first day seeing the sights in Winnipeg. They took in the Manitoba Museum and the Journey to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park.

"Everyone was saying, 'And why are you going to Winnipeg of all places in the middle of winter?'" said Robin Doohan.

"And I said, 'Because I've never experienced winter.'

"People live here, they must like living here — otherwise they wouldn't live here. And [the host families] show you the best of what's to offer," she said.

Live like locals

Gail Keeley, who is part of the Manitoba chapter of the group, says the program gives travellers a unique experience.

"You live with people in their homes and you experience their lifestyle and their culture while you're there. It gives you an opportunity to see things and experience things that, as a tourist, you might not be exposed to," said Keeley.

She says the group, who are mostly from Australia — where it's summer right now — wanted to experience a true Winnipeg winter.

Gail Keeley, exchange director with Friendship Force Manitoba, worked with the Winnipeg branch of the group to plan the ultimate Winnipeg experience for the travellers. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"They're enjoying the snow, they're actually enjoying the cool weather. It was very hot when they left Australia," said Keeley.

Where the Doohans live, the temperatures have been in excess of 40 C, and the area has seen bush fires this season.

While snow is a rare sight for many in the group, they visited Ottawa first and got a taste of a Canadian winter before landing in Winnipeg.

"Having been in Ottawa for a week and been in snowstorms and snow every day, this is quite mild," said Robin.

A true Winnipeg experience

While it's still early in their trip, Lachlan and his cousin got to experience a part of Canadian culture they might have missed if they were staying in a hotel.

Their hosts took them on their first snowmobile ride and convinced them to try poutine for the first time.

Robin says Winnipeg isn't what she expected, and that's a good thing.

"Winnipeg, from what I learned, was very flat and barren, I was told. Having arrived here, it's not like that at all. Whilst it's flat, there's lots of snow and it's absolutely beautiful," she said.
The group visited the Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo on Thursday. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"And the people are very warm and friendly."

Over the next few days, the group will experience Festival du Voyageur, a hockey game, and winter activities at The Forks and Fort Whyte Alive. They will also head out on a sleigh ride at Birds Hill Park and learn to curl at the St. Vital Curling Club.

Friendship force has 350 clubs in 58 countries around the world, including chapters in Winnipeg and Brandon.