Opinion

Is there anything more quintessentially Winnipeg than an outdoor rink on a frozen river?

Is there anything more quintessentially Winnipeg than an outdoor rink on a frozen river?

For a city defined by its winter weather and its enigmatic rivers, those rinks that spontaneously erupt on the Red, Assiniboine and other smaller tributaries are the pure essence of "Winnipeg."

And yet, in a year that has redefined our lives in so many ways, the river rinks have also become a point of conflict. At least, one rink in particular has become a point of conflict.

Recently, the pages of this newspaper have featured letters and stories quoting citizens complaining about "selfish" homeowners along the river "claiming" public river space for their private use. Although he has not been identified by name, Dave Barclay and his rink are at the centre of this debate.

For the past 13 years, Barclay has flooded a rink on the river behind his home that could be one of the finest of its kind in the city. It has low plywood boards, snowbanks dotted with discarded Christmas trees, and a fire pit.

When he and his buddies were skating, it wasn't unusual for others to join in. Sometimes, locals would come down and use the rink when he wasn't there and, in the best tradition of Winnipeg river etiquette, Barclay was happy to let anyone and everyone enjoy.

Barclay and some neighbours even cleared a one-kilometre skating trail west from Dominion Street to Omand's Creek to help more people enjoy the river.

This year, however, things started to change.

With record numbers of stir-crazy Winnipeggers seeking out the frozen rivers for recreation, Barclay's rink was bursting at the seams.

Barclay had told his friends and family they would only be allowed to play 2-on-2 to respect pandemic guidelines. On some days, however, more than a dozen people crammed on the rink. Equally concerning, he and his family were finding it impossible to get any ice time and still maintain social distancing.

So, he put up a sign on one of the trees asking that anyone who wanted to use the rink introduce themselves beforehand and limit numbers. After introducing yourself, Barclay wrote, he was happy to let anyone "enjoy the rink."

Dave Barclay said the sign posted on the river rink he built was warmly received when it was first posted.

DAN LETT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dave Barclay said the sign posted on the river rink he built was warmly received when it was first posted.

Barclay said the sign was warmly received. "Not one person said they felt it was offensive, and that all I was asking was for people to be polite," he said.

Then, on Jan. 30, a day after the Free Press profiled volunteer efforts to create public space on the rivers, a letter appeared in the newspaper from a Wolseley resident alleging Barclay (whom she did not name but was clearly calling out) had "claimed public space for their own use to the exclusion of others."

Of course, the letter is an egregious misrepresentation of what was going on, but it confirmed the author spent little time reading the sign and no time talking to Barclay. Even so, the letter seemed to accomplish its goal.

Barclay said in the wake of that letter, some people using the rink had become aggressive, telling him they would skate on it whenever they wanted and he couldn't do anything about it. Others attached nasty notes to his original sign telling him the rink was public property.

Barclay said in the wake of that letter, some people using the rink had become aggressive, telling him they would skate on it whenever they wanted and he couldn't do anything about it. Others attached nasty notes to his original sign telling him the rink was public property.

Not surprisingly, not a single one of his detractors — known or unknown — made an offer to shovel snow or re-surface the rink.

Anyone who has laid eyes on Barclay's rink can see there is no barbed wire along its perimeter, no menacing "Private Property" signs. It is now, as it has always been, open to anyone who loves the thrill of the ice.

For the record, there are no bylaws governing the private use of frozen rivers; we've always pretty much allowed anyone to do down and build anything.

But given the time and effort some folks put into their creations, I don't know of many reasonable people who wouldn't allow the creators the opportunity to benefit from their hard work, particularly when so many others are allowed to partake as well.

There are no bylaws governing the private use of frozen rivers; we've always pretty much allowed anyone to do down and build anything.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

There are no bylaws governing the private use of frozen rivers; we've always pretty much allowed anyone to do down and build anything.

So, what motivated the letter writer? At the heart of this story is an undeniable truth about human nature: in this world, there are people who make things and other people who would rather just sit on their hands and criticize others. That's a lesson I learned in four years as a community club convener.

I quite often could not find a warm body to help flood the outdoor rinks in the winter, or clean them after a snowfall, or to organize fundraising events. However, after the fact, there was no shortage of people who were quick to criticize your effort.

In short, if the people who wrote the letters and nasty notes had instead grabbed a couple of shovels and headed down to the river, they could have been well along the way to building another rink.

The frozen river can be — as referenced earlier — the ultimate Winnipeg experience. But let's remember that every time you come across one of the tiny rinks, the groomed ski and bike trails, or the pristine skating paths that fall outside the official work of city employees, there is a small army of anonymous volunteers and winter weather enthusiasts responsible.

So, before you lay claim to a river rink as a public amenity, make sure you've earned that right with a little sweat equity.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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