Urban (Mis)design

The sun seems so much harsher and unforgiving the further west we go. Is it the thinning ozone layer in the atmosphere? I feel as if my body’s baking, as if a deadly and brutal radiation is penetrating the skin.

So it’s a relief when we finally get a day of gray clouds one afternoon in Saskatoon.

Walking around on a tortuously humid day in Thunder Bay, Ontario, is also an ordeal – Naomi and I are looking for a restaurant. One thing that we notice is the width of the streets downtown. What is this, Manhattan? It seems that the further west we go, the wider and bigger certain things are, like streets and grocery stores.

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I don’t mind wide grand boulevards like the kind we would find in Paris. I’ve strolled wide sidewalks in Barcelona and Bilbao where large crowds, gorgeous stores and old-world buildings help to create a majestic, elevated atmosphere, but there’s something eerie about a super wide downtown street in a place like Thunder Bay. It’s depressing to walk on empty sidewalks beside low-slung unattractive buildings with boarded-up stores along expansive avenues.

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Downtown Thunder Bay

So, for us, passing through on one particular summer afternoon, Thunder Bay suffers from a distinct lack of charm. The surrounding residential streets, however, do maintain more normal proportions and for a few minutes, as we try to find our way out of town, Thunder Bay doesn’t seem that bad a place to live…

I feel the same way about Winnipeg, a city trying very hard to be relevant and more international. The downtown area seems to be designed with the motorist in mind – again very wide treeless streets, the downtown area a concrete and glass jungle, tiring to walk around under a relentless, draining sun. Some of the buildings remind me of downtown Ottawa. I’m not a big fan of the 1990’s-designed glass-enclosed office building, which dully mirrors the city back to the pedestrian. Winnipeg has too many of these buildings, structures that might look okay in the architect’s office in prototype form but not so great in real life.

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Downtown Winnipeg

In both cities, and elsewhere in the west, we also come across giant, endless grocery stores with wide empty aisles. Where are all the people?

First Nations 101

Canada’s First Nations have quite a strong presence in Western Ontario. Once you pass Sudbury, you can see it everywhere: billboards announcing their communities, towns with Native names, people speaking Ojibwa at the local Tim Horton’s. Saskatoon is supposed to have the highest per capita First Nations population in Canada.

In Winnipeg, I notice a fairly large group of inebriated native people standing around on a Portage Street sidewalk.

Back in Ontario, the few First Nations villages that we drive through seem extremely ramshackle and poor. At a boutique in Saskatoon, where most of the products are either vintage or First Nations, Naomi purchases a beautiful orange beaded Cree necklace. Our taxi driver in Saskatoon, a sweet and honest person (he stops the meter not far from our destination when he thinks that he’s lost), is First Nations.

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First Nation’s town.

Of course, the presence of First Nations people will also be felt later when we visit the Aboriginal Museum in Vancouver. Our guide, who might be First Nations, gives us the most political museum tour we’ve ever witnessed.

But these are the times we live in, where First Nations peoples have become extremely assertive and angry regarding their position in society.

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