Manitoba, eh?!


The following article by Paul Wiecek appeared on page A7 of the Friday, July 4, 2008 issue
of the Winnipeg Free Press.



Photo -- Boris Minkevich

Paul Armstrong runs a website called ‘Manitoba, eh?!’


What makes us so modest about our accomplishments?

Manitobans are great at just about everything -- except, that is, for taking pride in their own and telling the world about all their great accomplishments. Funny -- for a province so great, we sure are terrible at celebrating it.

And so it's left to local amateur historian Paul Armstrong to do for this province what seemingly no one else -- not government, not schools, not media -- are willing to do: Climb to the top of the mountain and proclaim to the world that Manitoba's not only not boring, it's actually home to a vastly disproportionate number of the world's great people and great accomplishments.

So how does a 68-year-old retired math teacher make Manitoba's case to the world? Well, he sets up a website of course.

Armstrong's site, www.manitoba-eh.ca, is a treasure trove of everything that makes this province great. It's full of great Manitobans you've probably never heard of, people like Charlie Thorson, who helped design such animated greats as Bugs Bunny, Snow White and Elmer Fudd.

It's full of great Manitoba accomplishments, like the fact our "999" system was the first emergency telephone system in North America.

But mostly, the site is just one man's homage to a province he feels is overlooked by everyone, but especially ourselves. "We do a terrible job promoting ourselves," says Armstrong. "I've sent this same stuff out to MPs and MLAs and they pay it lip service but that's about it.

"I try and I try and I try, but it's just not something people find important. Like I suggested we have rotating billboards or TV slots or whatever it might be to get our message out. Because it's just amazing how few people know about Manitoba and know about the amazing things we've accomplished.

"No wonder they think it's a boring province. No one knows about the fantastic things that have happened here."

As an educator -- he taught junior high math for 30 years in Winnipeg -- Armstrong says our schools need to do a much better job of ensuring our young people know their own history at least as well as they know American and European history.

"I think it should be part of every year's social studies course," Armstrong says. "If more people knew all the fantastic things that happened here, we'd have less young people moving away."

Armstrong says he makes a big effort to keep his website as up-to-date as possible, precisely because he wants it to attract young people, who are maybe a little more intrigued by the latest CD by Chantal Kreviazuk than the accomplishments of an old Manitoba pioneer.

"That's the nice thing about a website, is that you can keep it current."

But as far as Armstrong is concerned, it's one of our older Manitobans who is still the greatest of all time -- Sir William Stephenson, the "Man Called Intrepid" and the inspiration for James Bond.

"People know nothing about the fact this guy was hand-picked by Winston Churchill to run the (British) secret service... and that he helped to maybe end the war earlier. And there's even more stuff about this guy -- on one website I saw a reference to him inventing a forerunner to the television. This stuff just goes on and on. And not just for Stephenson.”

"I don't know anyone across Canada with his credentials, much less Manitoba.... And while he didn't accomplish all these things in Manitoba, a lot of the things he did affected the whole world, including Manitoba."

With just under three weeks of voting to go in the Free Press/CBC search for the Greatest Manitoban, Stephenson was in 12th place on Wednesday, a couple hundred votes behind the leader, former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin.

Readers can view the 50 nominees for Greatest Manitoban at the Free Press website, www.winnipegfreepress.com. You can vote for as many nominees as you like and you can do it day after day, with the only restriction being just one vote per nominee per day.

Armstrong says he's been casting all his votes for Stephenson, but says he doesn't really have a problem with whoever wins in the end.

"It doesn't matter who wins or loses this thing," Armstrong says. "The fact that people are becoming aware of these accomplishments of Manitobans is the big bonus of what you're doing. They're getting their mind on this and learning a lot more about it."

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The following article by Alison Mayes appeared on page F3 of the Saturday, March 12th, 2005
issue of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Photo -- Wayne Glowacki

History buffs Paul and Joyce Armstrong in front of vintage safe doors at
Red River College's Princess Street Campus


Passion for the past

Paul Armstrong only recently discovered an appreciation for Manitoba's history, but he's making up for lost time.

WHAT is it? What's it for? Who built it? When and why?

Paul Armstrong is a man full of questions. Even the title of his hobby website features a question mark: Manitoba, Eh?!

Armstrong, 65, and his wife Joyce are lifelong St. James residents who paid almost no attention to Manitoba history during their science-oriented working lives.

She was a lab technologist, and he a math and science teacher. "My mind was always working on my next lesson plan," he says.

Ten years ago, once both had retired and their two sons had left home, their perspective on their home city and province started to change. They began to notice the unique beauty and richness of their surroundings.

If they saw an intriguing structure while taking a day trip on the highway, they'd stop and investigate it. If an architectural tour like Doors Open Winnipeg was offered, they took it. Last year, they joined the Manitoba Historical Society. These days, Armstrong can't believe what he was missing when he ignored Manitoba's spectacular architectural heritage and colourful past. He speaks rapturously of landmarks like the Bank of Montreal at Portage and Main.

"I entered that building for the first time in my life when I was 61!" he marvels. "... all the beautiful marble ... and the history -- I didn't know anything about Louis Riel until five years ago."

Last year, Armstrong became determined to use the Internet to share the couple's passion for Manitoba, and to gather information from others. He bought a digital camera, borrowed books from the library and learned how to create a website.

In June, he launched the folksy Manitoba, Eh?!

The site is divided into several subject areas, including "Manitoba's Uncommon Sites and Sights." Here, the ever-inquisitive Armstrong highlights unusual places by posting photos and questions such as, "Does anyone have information on the building shown below?"

He also includes special features of buildings. When he and Joyce went to explore the Red River College Princess Street campus, for instance, his interest was immediately piqued by the ornately painted black doors from vintage safes that are displayed there. Embellished with elegant designs and pastoral scenes, they are obviously relics of the Victorian commercial buildings whose façades are preserved on the site. But Armstrong wants to know more. "Just the story behind them ... Why were they so decorative? Were they sent that way? Did somebody here in Winnipeg do it?"

The website is positively peppered with question marks, and blanks waiting to be filled in. Whether the answers to his queries are available in some reference book or brochure doesn't really matter to Armstrong.

He wants other people to respond, elucidate, perhaps deepen a mystery or put one to rest. He posts their comments in hopes of generating more.

"Everybody likes to talk about stuff they know," he says. "I'm trying to exchange information ... and have a two-way avenue. Let's get a dialogue going."

If you've always wanted to uncover the story of a Manitoba site or sight, Armstrong hopes you'll visit the website and e-mail him. He works on it every day, updating and augmenting. He and Joyce want to concentrate on little-known places, rather than standard tourist spots.

"We're trying to pick things that other people have not pursued," he says.

A few of the sights he has posted -- some still awaiting their first viewer comments -- include stone fences in Grand Marais; the century-old "Overwater" barn south of Lockport (said to be the tallest barn in Canada); an old log house in Fraserwood; a 95-year-old dance hall on a cattle farm near Ste. Rose du Lac; 19th-century iron crosses in Franco-Manitoban cemeteries; an apparent flour mill at Holmfield with the name Harrison on it; and a "sunken barn" east of Lockport.

He hopes someone will explain an object in a field west of Killarney, near a "Shannon" homestead sign. It includes what looks a bit like an orange mailbox between two wooden posts.

The Manitoba Historical Society, like the Armstrongs, wants to encourage research, sharing of information and appreciation of Manitoba's past. It has just launched a forum on its website where anyone can post questions or responses on historical subjects. An MHS link to Manitoba, Eh?! is starting to drive traffic to Armstrong's site. Armstrong says it's often seniors like him who become passionate about historic places. "Young people like young things and young ideas, and things that move," he says. "I don't think for young people that old buildings mean very much." [See comment below.]

On the other hand, when he meets for weekly coffee with his old buddies, some of them can't fathom why he goes poking around old barns, then slaves over a computer to document the experience.

"They just look at me like, 'Get a life!' he says with a delighted laugh.

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Comment by Paul -- I am adding this statement after the publication of this article.

"Judging by the responses to this article, I have been pleased to discover that there are many young (& young at heart) people interested in Manitoba's history."

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The following article by Ross Romaniuk appeared on page 3 of the Monday, May 18th, 2009
issue of the Winnipeg Sun.

Intrepid Avenue?

Stephenson. William Stephenson. -- That name, or some form of it, could become the official moniker for Portage Avenue East if a group of Winnipeg-led aficionados of the legendary wartime spymaster -- reputedly an inspiration for the James Bond character -- get their way at city hall.

The locally-based Intrepid Society is asking the city to replace the name of Portage's short stretch east of Main Street with William Stephenson Way, or some such label, as a tribute to the Winnipeg-born man who led much of the successful and ground-breaking intelligence and espionage efforts for Allied forces during the Second World War.

"He did a marvelous amount of work in the years that he was helping establish a spy and intelligence system during World War II, and prior to the war," Gary Solar, president of the Intrepid Society, said of Stephenson. "If there is one person who could be singled out for doing things to help the war end, it would be him. He gathered information that made the Allies much more successful."

Spy code name Using Stephenson's reputed spy code name Intrepid in its title, the organization will take its case tomorrow to the city's Lord Selkirk-West Kildonan community committee. What it's seeking is more attention for the highly-decorated man who fought for Canada in the First World War before becoming a major Second World War influence on then-British prime minister Winston Churchill and U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, while co-ordinating much of the classified communication between their offices.

Many consider Stephenson, who was eventually knighted in 1945, a real-life inspiration for Agent 007 of author Ian Fleming's novels and a host of Bond movies beginning in 1962. Fleming, in fact, is reported to have said in a published interview in 1962 that Stephenson is "the real thing" as far as high-level spying, as opposed to the "highly romanticized" James Bond.

Paul Armstrong, a member of the Intrepid group, pointed out that Stephenson -- after leaving Winnipeg at about age 19 -- also made a name for himself with his communications technology savvy in the business world. "He became a millionaire in the communications industry before the age of 30," said Armstrong, who will make the pitch to the committee's councillors.

Statue "He's reputed to be the inspiration for James Bond. He developed a forerunner to television. He received awards from the Americans. He was an amazing man."

Though a statue of Stephenson has stood on Memorial Boulevard since 1999, and the Keewatin Street branch of the Winnipeg Public Library is named for him, the Intrepid Society says Winnipeg and perhaps the rest of Canada have never fully understood or appreciated his heroic exploits, which include playing a role in the establishment of the CIA in the U.S.

Despite the accomplishments of the man called Intrepid, Coun. Harry Lazarenko says he's "lukewarm" to the street-name proposal. He said long-held street names can't simply be thrown out whenever such a change is requested. And he downplayed Stephenson's apparent big-time spy fame.

"James Bond is fiction," Lazarenko charged. "If there's an explosion in a plane, and the guy drops thousands of feet in a parachute, that's fiction. We have to deal in reality."

Armstrong said the renaming proposal is endorsed by local business heavyweights such as Leonard and Gail Asper and Arni Thorsteinson, as well as by Heritage Winnipeg.

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For the 'Manitoba, eh?!' website, click here.