Our Gaming Heritage

Winter in the Canadian prairies can get unbelievably cold — like, how and why did anyone ever live here cold?

I think about a time when people didn’t have heating, and cars, and electric blankets, and I wonder: How did they do it? How could anybody survive in January and February?

Beyond the burning chill, there’s the loneliness. At a time when there were fewer people in general and it took longer to get anywhere, winters must have been desolate.

Of course there were villages and settlements and the like, so people weren’t alone. But with exploration and the fur trade, some folks had to endure extreme periods of isolation.

How did they manage to press on? How did they pass the time? That’s how I’m shoehorning this post in here, because:

I went to Festival du Voyageur!

Festival is a yearly event in Winnipeg– where I’m from– that celebrates the fur trade in Manitoba, particularly from a French and Metis perspective. It’s set around 1815-1816.

I’ve lived in Manitoba all my life and somehow had never been, so on recent a trip to the big city, I made a point of checking it out.

Thankfully, a friend served as a guide and I got all the inside scoops.

There was dancing, history, booze, and general revelry (oh, and pea soup and tourtière). It was a blast! But we’ll stick to the gaming stuff:

First, a delightful young gentlemen showed us a couple old decks of playing cards. One had cards with lots of writing on them, the other was pretty similar to the decks you’d see today– with one exception.


If I remember right, the stories on the cards are morals.

There are no numbers on them! The DYG explained that many of the voyageurs were illiterate and couldn’t read written numbers; they could, however, count the symbols.

The cards with all the small print on them were for the fancy folk, who could read. Basically, if it wasn’t their turn, they could amuse themselves with a short story. I feel like that has to work against you if you’re gambling.

While wandering the karaoke tent, a man asked us each for a dollar. We obliged and he gave me a hammer. There was a wood block with nails sticking out of it. The man told me something in French, possibly about the hammer. Je ne comprends pas. My guide got him to explain it in English:

Hold the hammer head down on the table; in one fluid motion bring it up and down, and strike the nail. The first to drive their nail into the wood wins.



A winner was me! Apparently there’s a version of the game in which players take shots of Caribou (fortified wine) when they miss. That sounds dangerous. And great. And dangerous.

I will leave you with some random pictures from my Festival adventure. If you’ve never been, go! To quote the Doctor: Allons-y!

Nerd alert: One more thing. The Festival du Voyageur cheer is Hé Ho! One of the MCs for the night was teasing us anglophones in our pronunciation. You see, in French, it’s more like “‘Ay oh!” So he was ribbin’ us, because we English speakers tend to say it like the Ramones. And he said something in French, and I made out the word Beetlejuice.

He was trying to give an example of how to properly say it.

**** Nerd card revoked: But you’ve got the wrong song, mon ami. You’re thinking of “Dayo! Me say daaaaayo!” A common mistake. The song in Beetlejuice is “Shake, shake, shake, Senora. Shake your body line.”  —- edit: Dayo! is also in Beetlejuice. I forgot, and hang my head in shame.


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