Manitoba

Staff at RBC Convention Centre bring comfort to evacuees

Close to 500 people are currently at the RBC Convention Centre after being driven from their homes by a wildfire in northern Manitoba, but that number fluctuates as some people have gone home to their community, and others have found a place to stay in Winnipeg or elsewhere.

Kitchen makes thousands of meals a day

Quentin Harty, executive chef for the RBC Convention Centre, and the culinary staff at the centre have been busy making thousands of meals a day for the wildfire evacuees from northern Manitoba who are staying in Winnipeg. (Julianne Runne/CBC)

Staff at the RBC Convention Centre are using food to provide comfort for evacuees in crisis.

Close to 500 people are currently at the RBC Convention Centre after being driven from their homes by a wildfire in northern Manitoba, but that number fluctuates as some people have gone home to their community, and others have found a place to stay in Winnipeg or elsewhere, says to the centre's president and CEO, Klaus Lahr.

Lahr says meals are served buffet style in a dining area in a massive room typically used for graduation ceremonies.

"A thousand people, three thousand meals a day but during grad season we serve way more meals than that," said Lahr. "I wouldn't say we're out of our element, in fact I think this is just right up our alley, we are in the business of looking after people, we're in the business of making people happy, the situation is a little different but we adjust to it and it has worked very well.

"They've been very great people to have under our roof."

The entire third floor of the convention centre—which is designed for 9,000 people—is the temporary home for the evacuees.

Food is very important in a crisis.- Quentin Harty, executive chef for the RBC Convention Centre

In two massive rooms, Hall 'A' and Hall 'B', cots with blankets are set up grid-style.

The far banquet room, otherwise known as "Hall C," has the dining area, activities for children, two movie theatres, and stations for health and social services.

Pizza, perogies and now hamburger soup are on the weekly menu.

"Food is very important in a crisis," said Quentin Harty, executive chef for the RBC Convention Centre. "If you can imagine being flown out somewhere, and being in a surrounding with people you're not familiar with... I think that's why food is everybody's go-to."

Don Taylor from St. Theresa Point, left, and Rex McDougall from Wasagamack First Nation are among the 500 wildfire evacuees from northern Manitoba staying at the RBC Convention Centre. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Harty said hearing from the evacuees has been crucial in meal-planning.

"We're getting good feedback. They have the odd suggestion that they're offering up to us and we're responding to that," he said. "We're trying to take really good care of them."

He says many people have asked for hamburger soup, and now, ragout, pizza and jackfish have been added to this week's menus.

"No doubt it's a crisis they're experiencing, it's a life altering experience so we're trying to be as accommodating as possible," he said. "I'm happy that we were here to help and fulfil the need and serve, that's what it's all about."

Don Taylor from St. Theresa Point appreciates the effort.

"The food is good and everything's great," said the 25-year-old, who is looking forward to getting to his community and checking on his house soon.

Taylor says Tuesday's lunch—sausage and perogies—helped to relieve his stress, something echoed by his friend, Rex McDougall from Wasagamack First Nation.

"Food's pretty good. They got good chefs. Give 'em two thumbs up," said McDougall.

Lahr says the convention centre can keep the status quo until September 12; beyond that, it will take some room re-arranging, but he adds the evacuees can stay until the end of September.

He said there have been some challenges with children pulling the fire drill, but after the elders spoke to them, that stopped.

"If this was me I don't know whether I would be able to handle it as calmly and as civilized as they do," said Lahr. "So my feeling goes out to them and my hat goes out to them."

The Canadian Red Cross is providing round-the-clock support to evacuees and buses leave the convention centre every half hour. The buses go to Walmart so people can buy their necessities, the Pan-Am Pool so people can shower, and to the other relief centre on Leila Avenue so evacuees can visit friends.

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