Prince Philip’s frog-jumping legacy in a Manitoba French community

WINNIPEG – The death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, has reminded a small French village in Manitoba about how a royal visit half a century ago made the community the centre of frog racing in Canada.

As word of his passing spread Friday through St-Pierre-Jolys, about 40 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, many people reflected on his visit with the Queen in 1970.

“They came in and they spoke French to us … so they respected us as we respected them,” said Roland Gagne, a full-time volunteer at the St-Pierre-Jolys Museum.

Buckingham Palace announced Friday that Prince Philip had died at the age of 99.

Philip married the then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947. He was the longest-serving royal consort in British history and, in his role, he made numerous trips to Canada.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said Friday that Philip connected directly with thousands of Manitobans from his first visit in 1951 to his last in 2010.

Gagne was a child when the royal couple came to the province for Manitoba’s Centennial in 1970.

He said the community was picked to host the royals because they wanted to experience the “true colour of a French-Canadian village.” At the time, more than 80 per cent of St-Pierre-Jolys’ population was French-speaking.

A festival was planned for the visit and the entire village was decorated.

“I couldn’t believe that they were building this stage in the middle of town in front of our Catholic cathedral,” Gagne said.

But the village wanted to make an even larger impression on the Queen and her husband.

“We are surrounded here by Mennonites, Ukrainians, Germans, Hutterites, etc. One of our nicknames is the frog, of course,” Gagne said.

“We said, ‘let’s enjoy that and let’s get the Frog Follies underway.’”

The mayor issued a challenge to other local politicians, mayors and reeves to bring their best frog forward. And, thus, began the frog jumping competition.

People searched ponds for northern leopard frogs — Manitoba’s biggest frog, typically five to 11 centimetres long.

Two Court of Queen’s Bench justices and a doctor were among the judges who crowned Georges the winning frog, after it jumped just over 2.1 metres, and marked the beginning of the annual Frog Follies.

The festival has grown in the decades since to become a main Manitoba summer adventure. The weekend-long event attracts more than 1,000 people each day to the village of just under 1,200.

It was cancelled last year, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gagne said while the royal couple’s visit was short, and he doesn’t think they saw any of the frogs, it made an impact that’s lasted more than five decades.

He said Philip, in particular, was pleased to find pockets of French-Canadians in a largely English-speaking province.

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Gagne said he is thinking of Prince Philip’s family at this time.

“He lived a full life.“

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2021.

TORONTO STAR