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Mention the word Manitoba and two images swiftly come to mind: professional hockey's Winnipeg Jets, who don't even reside here anymore, and polar bears - which certainly do. The popular impression of this province seems to be that it is mostly a place for passing through. But in fact, visitors have been coming to Manitoba - and staying - for more than a century, swelling its capital city of Winnipeg into Canada's fourth-largest city and creating a surprising mix of immigrant culture more diverse than anywhere else between Vancouver and Toronto.

In the beginning, the province consisted of several Aboriginal groups. It was they who gave the province its name: Manitou was chief among the spirits of the native religion, and the rapids of Lake Manitoba were believed to be his voice.

It is certainly true that the southern portion of the province is flat, levelled by great glaciers during the most recent Ice Age. Where thousands of square miles of uninterrupted tallgrass prairie once rolled under the press of the wind, today colourful fields of hard wheat, flax, canola and sunflowers thrive. In wet places, thousands of pocket marshes, complete with full complements of resident and migrating waterfowl, replace the fields.

But whatever Manitoba may lack in varied topography, it makes up for with fertile farmland and enormous lakes that are home to countless birds. In fact, only about 40 percent of the province is flat. The rest is comprised of hills and waterways carved out of the Canadian Shield, a mass of hard ancient rock surrounding Hudson Bay that surfaces most obviously here and in northern Ontario. This land is chock full of deep pine forests, cliffs, and lakes; it is not unusual to see elk, caribou or bears in some places.

In the sparsely populated far north, tundra becomes predominant and the wildlife grows more spectacular still, as the luminous sub-Arctic summers, with their unique light, are filled with white whales and polar bears.

Manitoba boasts the largest city on the prairies; Winnipeg, a bona fide metropolis of more than 600,000 inhabitants, rises improbably from the plains at the convergence of three rivers and is the likely starting point for most visitors' journeys around the province.

Polar bear

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