For the man trying to reclaim winter, the season itself is an experience. You needn’t do anything more than simply exist in it. A cold and snowy January evening is a sensory encounter, full of feelings, sounds and smells available no other way. It’s a connection to nature, history and humanity. And, for Daniel Cournoyer, it’s fun.
Cournoyer has plenty of winter experience to draw on. He’s a lifelong resident of Edmonton in northern Alberta, which means he’s lived through his share of winter. He’s also part of a growing contingent of residents in Alberta’s capital that are working to reclaim the season.
There was a time when winter was perhaps taken for granted. Winter can be difficult, there’s no doubt, and the measures humans have taken to make winter comfortable (central heating, snow tires, Gore-Tex) did, for a time, threaten to rob us of our connection to the season. But Cournoyer is part of Edmonton that never lost that connection and are on a citywide mission to reinstate winter as the best part of the year.
Cournoyer’s biggest contribution may be the Flying Canoë Volant. When a civic winter festival lost momentum and shut down several years ago, Cournoyer offered to take it over. He renamed it, gave it a new focus and transformed it into something completely different. Now, it’s a celebration of many things – Canada’s bilingual heritage, its Indigenous people – but mostly it’s a reminder of the specialness of winter.
The festival is built around a Canadian legend of a group of loggers longing for home who make a pact with the Devil that puts them into a canoe flying through the night sky. In Edmonton’s interpretation, the festival is full of light, music, food and art. It’s also become a highlight of a winter season that’s increasingly packed with memorable events in a city that boasts a committee officially tasked by City Hall with making winter better for everyone. And Cournoyer makes sure it’s fun: tens of thousands of people attend Flying Canoë Volant every year.
Cournoyer also opened the city’s first outdoor winter café patio, runs a French-Canadian heritage centre and does all kinds of other things to help his community. But when you speak to him about winter, you can see that it means something special to him. Even if it’s nothing more than being outside and experiencing it.