“On the prairie, what you are left with is the bare truth, the land pared down to the bone, the basic dirt and grass and sky that shape the lives that play out upon it.”
Winnipeg at a surface level seems to be a self-deprecating place. The city is aware of its shortcomings - aware of the urban decay, homelessness, the number of individuals with functionally limiting mental illnesses being discharged from acute care centres with few supports to “no fixed address.”
Winnipeg is also a place of beauty. The kind of beauty you see when you stop along the Assiniboine Park footbridge and lean over the side, placing your chin on your hands and staring down at the river. The kind of beauty you see when you sit down with the person holding the cup and really listen.
Since I’ve moved to rural Saskatchewan to be a community occupational therapist, I’ve started describing the city as a surreal, enigmatic place. Those who listen to me talk about Winnipeg must envision a horrifying, fascinating city.
Saskatchewan has been referred to in jest as “the gap.” Though I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, I do think I was faced with a gap when I moved here. L’appel du vide: the call of the void. Something was nagging me to take the leap. Go west, young man.
My job takes me to every corner of this beautiful province. Every day I am faced with vacuous emptiness. I drive for hours through the prairie void. I drive to get to something difficult, but worth facing: the palliative client cared for in their home, or the client living with a complex mixture of psychological, physical, and environmental barriers to health and wellbeing. The manifestations of these barriers are never pleasant, but the privilege of facing them with clients and engaging in shared problem solving is a thing of pure beauty.
Living in Winnipeg has prepared me to face the void with my clients. Winnipeg, as I see it, is a city that is faced with suffering and beauty all at once. There is a sense of community I have seen in the darkest corners of the city. Winnipeg is brimming with a compassion that can only come with the shared experience of the frustrating and compelling aspects of it.
Winnipeg is a growing city. This growth comes from the courage to stare down the void. The courage to leave the home and face the cold, the suffering, and the emptiness. To face these things together, as a community.
This growth also comes from the willingness to organize and participate in constant community outreach, programs and festivals that bring a shared joy and levity to the city.
I extend my thank you to Winnipeg. Thank you for preparing me to face the void, allowing me to grow personally, professionally, and with my community: with levity and compassion.
I encourage the city of Winnipeg to keep looking into these places of beauty, and these places of suffering. From this awareness will come growth as a city, as a community, and as individuals.
Calum Martin is an alumni of both the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba. He currently practices occupational therapy in Saskatchewan.