First Impressions of Churchill, Manitoba.
I was greeted warmly at the tiny airport terminal by the clear Manitoban sun and a rusted white van, containing one Belinda Fitzpartick, co-owner of the Tundra Inn, a fellow Queenslander, and my new employer. Belinda couldn’t have made the welcome to my new home anymore fitting, with arms as wide her Australian accent, the first I had heard in weeks. I hauled my backpack and the contents of the past nine months of my life into the back of the nine-seater van before jumping into the front passenger seat and presenting Belinda with a twenty-box of TimBits; the sole Tim Hortons item to be seen for hundreds of miles. “Just as well! You’re not going to see anything like that here!” Belinda laughs, confirming what I already knew. The drive back to town along the curve of the Hudson Bay and down Kelsey Blvd saw no flexible mermaids, golden arches nor a smiling colonel, thus establishing an untouched, uncommercialised north. A small detour sees a drive through the colourful graffiti rocks of Polar Bear Alley, the desertlike coastline of the Hudson Bay jeweled with washed up ice floes, still frozen from the blizzard that occurred only two weeks before my landing; a young man with a shotgun strapped to his back while walking an excitable terrier, and the town’s Polar Bear jail, a holding cell for the not-quite-so welcome visitors to the small community. By small, I mean, positively miniscule.
Boasting a population of 800, a number declining since 2002, and .003% of Brisbane’s number, it’s difficult to be exclusive. Although, with the character of the people that regular and service the few bars, cafes, and tour companies that call the insular community of Churchill their home, you’ll always share the relaxed company of new friends, a stereotype that Canadians are internationally renowned for. It’s share and share alike, with your triumphs, problems and more commonly, the next round. Rum stocks are in abundance, white rums, spiced rums, dark rums, all housed in the bar rails of the Tundra Inn. Even the mild mannered Australian, Bundy Bear, makes an appearance in Churchill’s more esteemed watering hole, casting its cool gaze over the wooden glazed bartop. Inexpensive drinks aren’t the only things exchanged, the occasional bout of cheap gossip fades into the soundtrack of the country rock station over the dimly lit bar’s PA, as last calls for tequila shots or clinks of glass bottled Mooseheads are accented above the dull roar. The Internet and social media connect Churchill to the rest of the world, and each other, so, inevitably, news travels fast, save for possibly news on the incoming trains. The last passenger train to Churchill was late in the month of May, before a freight train’s derailment in June, causing the tracks to be shut down and the owners and participating companies cancelling all trips until further notice, without an optimistic date to speak of. With no roads leading to Manitoba’s far northern communities, Churchill relies on the affordability of the rails for its supplies and steady tourism through the current Beluga Season and the forthcoming Bear Season. With beer and food supplies running as low as tensions high, the virtue of patience was tested time and time again, with rumours of the tracks passing safety standards teasing businesses and separated families alike.
With a new home, comes new work, and new knowledge must be acquired to keep up. I have entered the world of serving in North America, a line of work that revolves around the planets of additional taxes, attentive service and tipping. It’s 8% here, another five there, and all the one percenters of the service industry that tip the scale when it comes down to customer gratuities, it’s a lot to play on your mind. Having been out of the hospitality game since September of last year, I assumed I’d be able to hit the ground running. Not quite, my new work mates not letting anything slide, an elated and talented chef in Yves; sports buff and bar overlord Jon, and Cornish dining room mistress, Tracy; forcing me through a labor of love as I stuttered out specials, struggled with balancing dinner plates and stressed out with Squirrel, the restaurants’ multifaceted POS system. It’s a friendly reminder that I am again the baby of the crew both in age and hospitality experience, and that I can only grow from here.
The otherside of my occupational contract shines every Tuesday evening, hanging up my scratch book and gravy stained apron to sling on six strings and set up the most basic of sound systems. The Tundra’s weekly Open Mic night gathers the youth and the young at heart together for their five minutes of fame, well, if they choose to. With the sun refusing to set before 11pm and dutch courage not taking its full affect until well after midnight, the first couple of hours result in me strumming through the songs that had stuck with me through my travels along with the occasional hit from the past. Riling the audience for requests didn’t prove too fruitful. “PLAY SOME HIP!” Oh yes, the Tragically Hip, Canada’s best kept secret. Much like Powderfinger (Powderhuh?) to Australia, no one outside of their home country knows this band. While Canada Day loomed and my sets of Irish Trad and Billy Bragg weren’t striking any chords, I hit the archives of Canada’s musical history, my knowledge of which lying in the niches of punk, art rock, and the ignorant and unspeakable musical crimes of Nickelback and Justin Bieber. While researching the Great White North’s musical produce from Tegan and Sara to Leonard Cohen, I had to halt at the discovery of Chris Cresswell’s solo effort, One Week, released only a few weeks ago. Taking a different timbre from his Toronto punk/ska outfit, The Flatliners, Cresswell sands back his grating vocal bark, reserving his bite for the same lyrical introspection and depth that fans have adored and become accustomed to, backed only by grandpa guitars, chiming pianos, and a surprising talent for whistling. A way and wander with words is a trait that Canadian songwriters can hold dear, names like Cohen, Lang, and Wainwright all being held high on a pedestal for their penmanship. Once Cresswell has as many lines in his face as he’s written for his songs, he’ll be a sure addition to that list.
It’s a very easy to feel a sense of belonging in the town of Churchill, Manitoba. Those that are born and raised Churchillian are rare, their stories best heard without interruption. As an exclusive destination in the land of the midnight sun, it’s impossible to be casual. Something has called you here, no matter what corner of the globe that you used to call home. Friendly Texans tell me of their survival through the Yukon Territories and Alaskan frontiers; a Portuguese gentleman server recounting his debaucheries and desires for Montreal’s villages and the Mile End; the inevitable wanderlust Australians, our thirst for new horizons paired with a love for drink; and the numerous youth taking the epic train journey from their home in Winnipeg; all to experience an encounter like none other. My job here is made by the people that walk into the Tundra Inn, glowing, and not just from the transparent skies and the high UV rays. I would enquire what they’ve done with their day before rattling off the day’s specials of bison stew and cranberry crumble, knowing full well, their faces alight, excited to tell me of the sights and sounds that had filled their last 12 hours. In a world finally questioning the need for amusement parks, obtaining then detaining wild creatures behind glass cases lacks the emotion and empathy they deserve. In recognizing this, a hunger has developed to venture to their natural environment, saving the animals from the captive, stale sterility of our own. For the beauty of a Northern Manitoban sunset, the majesty of a polar bear family coming ashore from the Hudson Bay to roam through the picturesque fireweeds of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, or the beluga whales singing like the canaries of the world’s seas, why wouldn’t you take a walk on the wild side?