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By Colleen Friesen

"Are you okay?" asks the hairy-chested young man as he sluices bowl after bowl of bathtub-hot water all over me. I am wrapped in two tiny pieces of cloth that seem to have more in common with tea towels than something you'd wear in a spa. Nevertheless, I am on my back on a hot slab of marble in a very steamy Turkish-style hammam. I feel like I could be posing for an old '50s style Harlequin Romance cover. I am s-o-o-o-o okay.

I think I know how Dorothy felt when she knew she was no longer in Kansas, cuz, Toto-this sure doesn't feel like Winnipeg.

I'd been to Winnipeg before, but always to visit relatives. Given my Mennonite background, you can be assured it was never to stay at the Fort Garry Hotel and indulge in their top floor Ten Spa baths.

If a trendy designer did a makeover on heaven, the Ten Spa would be the result, an ethereal study in white-on-white lounging bliss.

But now, that heavenly experience is fading fast. I'm standing on a clay bank where the Rat and Red Rivers converge. I have cycled here with Ruth Marr. Marr is with "Routes on the Red" and is guiding me on a shortened version of their Mennonite and French settler trail. Marr points, "Over seven thousand Mennonites first came ashore to Canada right here. It's referred to as The Landing."

What would those settlers have been thinking as they waded through the thick gumbo? How did they cope with extreme temperatures, mosquitoes-and a not-so-hidden government agenda that hoped these pacifist people would help settle the increasingly volatile Metis situation? I send a silent thank-you to my ancestors and all they had to endure.

Later, at the Riel House, Marr touches on yet another aspect of Winnipeg's past. "Louis Riel negotiated Manitoba into Confederation and fought for the rights of the Metis," she says.

Canadian history has portrayed Riel as both traitor and hero. But in Winnipeg, there seems to be no doubt as to what version holds sway. The shadow of Riel never fades no matter where I go.

Natives have traded for six thousand years where the Assiniboine and Red River meet. The Forks Market is at the confluence of this ancient commercial hub and the modern-day version is stuffed full of things to do. Food markets, cafes, shops, a kids' museum and a heavily used skateboard park. It's easy to see why this is where everyone-locals and tourists alike-ends up.

I opt for a tour boat ride.

"Manitoba would not exist without this man," says my tour-boat operator, pointing to the statue of Riel as he stands tall and proud in front of Manitoba's legislative buildings.

At dusk, I cross the Riel Esplanade pedestrian bridge that spans the Red River, linking The Forks to St. Boniface, the largest French-speaking community outside of Quebec. It's Saturday night and I'm part of a small audience that is following an animated theatre group. We are here to witness In Riel's Footsteps. Standing in the St. Boniface graveyard, I watch as a gravedigger in late-1800s Metis garb drags his shovel through the crosses.

"Louis has been betrayed," he speaks with a heavy French accent as he approaches the young woman in the long, drab dress. The characters talk to each other, and then directly at us, engaging the group. In less than an hour, I learn more than I ever absorbed in my entire Grade 10 socials class.

And just like I always felt after socials class-I'm starving. Luckily, Winnipeg is a multi-cultural foodie heaven. The nearby Step'n Out restaurant serves me up a terrific cumin-cinnamon-cardamom rubbed duck breast. The next night I try the Off Broadway restaurant located in the Hotel at York.

I savor my meal as I mull over my Manitoba adventures. Even Toto would agree. Dorothy should kiss Kansas goodbye. Winnipeg's got what she needs for a great weekend.


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