People were piling into the MTS Centre for a Winnipeg Jets game seemingly not stopping to admire Winnipeg’s first traffic signal.
Cars drive by during rush hour, inching closer toward their destination, probably not realizing that during the First World War in Winnipeg most people didn’t have personal cars.
I never used to stop to look at the traffic lights at the corner of Portage and Donald on my way home from school but now I can’t walk home without thinking about Winnipeg’s past.
I felt a lot like Jim Blanchard when I walked past the traffic lights at Portage Avenue and Donald Street.
Blanchard has a different relationship with our city than most because he knows of its history. He wrote a historical account of Winnipeg during the First World War through letters, diaries, and newspaper reports in his book Winnipeg’s Great War: A City Comes of Age.
When he talked to our journalism class today about his book he said that extensively knowing the history of the city makes it harder to see buildings demolished. He added that he probably knows more about the history of Winnipeg than most.
Blanchard does know a lot about the history of Winnipeg. The book is really detailed; it names probably almost a hundred people affected by the war, just as many dates, and it recounts the history of specific locations. But there were too many names and dates to know what was significant.
Blanchard focuses on certain people for a number of pages and others in passing such as Leopold Spodarek, who got into a jitney accident, the automobiles the first traffic light was built for. Though these small details are interesting, I don’t think they need to be in the book because they aren’t important to showing what Winnipeg was like during the war.
At the same time, some of the people Blanchard mentions in passing having really interesting stories but they’re only mentioned briefly then the story quickly shifts to someone else, such as the memorial for the young soldier discovered during renovations to an Exchange District building. Blanchard explained that some stories are so brief because he only had so much information to go off of in the records.
I also wish this book had more subheadings. Blanchard admitted that even though his five chapters are divided by year, it was hard for him to write only about that year in that chapter. Perhaps the book would have been easier if it was divided by themes or events.
He titled the book “A City Comes of Age” because Winnipeg began as an overconfident place with growth and potential but war gave the city a new perspective.
Whatever that perspective was, I’m not sure if we still have it.
He said in our discussion today that he thinks people will eventually forget about the First World War. I think people are already forgetting or don’t bother to learn about how our city and the people in it changed from the war.
The war memorials sit around our city to mark a time that at one point Blanchard calls “inhumane” because people were obsessed with winning the war. Blanchard writes at the end of his book that these memorials are important to families who lost loved ones in the war because they couldn’t make the trip to visit the troops’ graves. And many troops were around my age.
Ask most people my age what a war memorial means to them and they will probably say nothing. I think that’s how Winnipeg has changed since the First World War.