Winnie the Bear’s Regiment is 100 Year Old Today!

Yes, if Winnie was alive today, she (not he) would be proud and pleased with  the men who surrounded her and helped her to become one of their own as mascot and member of the Fort Gary Horse family.  She would be happy that today, April 12, 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the Fort Garry Horse Regiment and would be saying “Happy Birthday” if she could.   When the regiment was but two years old, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, was heading from Winnipeg to Québec in 1914.  Enroute they stopped in White River, Ontario where a hunter had shot and killed a mother bear.  The baby black bear cub was left without any care and so Lieutenant Colebourn, who was also a veterinarian, decided to buy her from the hunter for 20 dollars.  He had decided to call her “Winnie” after his home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

The bear travelled with the FGH to England as the Forces prepared to wage battle in Europe during the First World War.  When it was time to fight in France, Colebourn thought it was best that Winnie be left in the care of the London Zoo and so he did just that.  She did very well there to the point where children were able to ride her and dignitaries from all over came to have their photo take with Winnie. Many of these photos are archived at the London Zoo. She became quite the famous bear in her own right due to her calm nature and friendly disposition.

Lieutenant Colebourn had originally had plans to bring Winnie the Bear back to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg after the war, however, when he saw how well she had adjusted to the London Zoo, he decided this would be the best place for her to live.  She lived for 20 years until 1934.  During this time, many people saw the bear.  Two of these people were named A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard who happened to be a writer and illustrator respectively.   It is interesting to note that Milne had taken his son, Christopher Robin, to see the bear, who became so enamoured by her that Christopher named his stuffed teddy bear after Winnie and this also inspired his father to write the “Winnie-the- Pooh” book in 1926 which also ended up featuring this very same son as a character in the now famous books.

This initial book and the three other books have formed the basis of many future continuing books, games and movies.  To this day, children around the world know the story of Winnie-the-Pooh bear but few people know the real roots of the story or the connectedness to the Fort Garry Horse Regiment of Winnipeg. Some real books have been written about the real story of Winne the Bear but few people know of them.  A couple of these books may be found in the library section of the Fort Garry Horse Museum.  Only recently was a movie produced by CBC called “A Bear Named Winnie” in 2004.  We should give thanks to Lieutenant Colebourn and the Fort Garry Horse Regiment for having saved this bear which has had a much bigger impact on the world than even they knew or suspected would or could occur.  Lieutenant Colebourn returned from the war and continued serving with the Fort Garry Horse unit.  He reached the level of Major. As a veterinarian, his practice was just down the street on Corydon Avenue not far from Confusion Corners.   One man’s actions such as Lieutenant Colebourn’s has become an instigation for many other deeds and effects.

We must remember certain facts.  Winnie was a real bear.  She came from Canada.  She was born in or around White River, Ontario and she is named after Winnipeg, Manitoba.  What is most important to understand and recognize is that had it not been for the tragedy of World War I in Europe and had it not been for the tragedy that Winnie’s mother had been killed, the circumstances that led her to being in England at that time would not have happened and the books of “Winnie-the-Pooh” either would not have happened or would have not been the same.  In addition, it is precisely because she was so well taken care of by Lieutenant Colebourn that she was able to develop a friendly disposition that attracted many people’s interest.   Because of these circumstances, the story has been written, illustrated and told.  For generations of people around the world, Winnie-the-Pooh is a fictional character and is now loved as a favourite children’s classic but it was entirely based on actual bear named Winnie.  She was the real being.

As a reminder of this historical connectedness, there is a bronze statue of Lieutenant Harry Colebourn along with Winnie the Bear at Assniboine Park Zoo but did you also realize, that there is an exact replica of them at the London Zoo as well?  They are two symbols recognizing two key areas of Winnie the Bear and the connection to the Fort Garry Horse Regiment.

It is with pride today, on April 12, 2012 that Winnipeggers and other people around the world can recognize the Fort Garry Horse Regiment for their entire 100 year history inclusive of so many events and so many great deeds.  To help appreciate the history of the Fort Garry Horse, come out to the parades on Saturday, April 14, 2012 at the City of Winnipeg for 10:00 am and at the Manitoba Legislature for 11:45 am.  A new 100-year historial book called “Facta Non Verba” with 544 pages of information regarding the the Fort Garry Horse will be released this Friday and is available for sale.

For more information and details, see their website – http://www.fortgarryhorse.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=91&Itemid=99

Mary Mikawoz is a freelance writer, visual artist and photographer.  She is also a teacher and new media specialist.

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