Rhéal Leroux’s big idea met with a frosty reception when it launched in 1979. But that was the whole point. The festival’s founder envisioned a celebratory “break” from winter’s doldrums — an “interlude” if you will. Millions — tourists and locals alike — have followed his lead ever since.
“We had a vision driven by the privilege of being home to the Rideau Canal,” says the National Capital Commission’s former public events director (1979-1984). “I thought ‘skating is great’ but we can do so much more.” In Leroux’s doting eyes, Winterlude has equalled — if not surpassed — Quebec’s Winter Carnival.
Today’s annual Ice-Carving Masters Invitational, launched in 2003, is a frozen bedrock of Winterlude — as is the annual charitable Bed Race along the Canal. During Leroux’s early years at the helm, unorthodox races and competitions became part of Winterlude’s identity.
A curling tourney was added in year two, barrel jumping was rolled into the mix, and a community snow sculpture competition used to be held on Dow’s Lake, which attracted teams from local schools, universities, businesses, and the government. Organizers also introduced horse racing on the Canal to replicate harness races held on the frozen Ottawa River around the turn of the century, he explains.
Leroux has another favourite ghost of Winterlude’s past: “We used to have a race with bartenders from different hotels as they balanced [drinks].” Speed and hand-eye coordination ruled the day. In 1985, Winterlude played host to a “Race of the Eleven Cities,” in which approximately 800 skaters — including nearly 600 from Holland — skated 35-50 km from Ottawa to Rockland, with 11 Ottawa communities standing in for Dutch cities from the traditional European event.
In 2004, Winterlude partnered with the Ottawa Senators to celebrate Hockey Day in the capital, which saw local amateur hockey clubs playing 110 simultaneous shinny games on the Canal.
Special guests in the early years of Winterlude included a Scottish curling team and the Soviet hockey team (who wanted to skate the canal), Leroux says. A young Justin Trudeau attended the first edition with his father, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
As for the weather, Leroux said it has always been unpredictable. Winterlude was challenged by years of severe cold, or unseasonal warmth and rain, long before the climate-change era. But he cautions against Winterlude ever moving “too many things inside,” adding, “Winterlude is there to celebrate the winter.”
Article originally printed in The BIG 150. Get your copy of this special keepsake publication celebrating Ottawa’s place in the nation’s 150th birthday.