The origin of an iconic Christmas landmark in Winnipeg, the Wise Men lining Osborne Street, was once forgotten.

Since 1973, what was then called Great-West Life, now Canada Life, has displayed giant paper-mache camels and Wise Men on their Osbourne Street building. Every year, the camels have gone up, but the story behind them has slowly disappeared.

"There has been a lot of stories going around," said Senior Vice-President and CFO of Canada for Great-West Life Helen Kasdorf in a 2017 interview. "We think the story that makes the most sense is that we wanted a bigger holiday display because we're across from the legislative."

Many stories were told about both the origin and the people who built them. But one person has known the truth this whole time.

Suzanne Gauthier is originally from Lorette and now living on the east coast. She started working for Gordon Reimer at Reimer Display after graduating with a Fine Arts Honours Degree from the University of Manitoba in 1969.

"I spent a whole year working for him, then went to Europe," Gauthier explained. "Then I worked part-time for him (after)."

This included work with window displays on Portage Avenue, fancy wallpaper hangings, and other complicated design work. Eventually, Gauthier was asked to make a four-foot apple and a life-size bull, which she designed and made from paper-mache.

While she was working on these projects, Great-West Life was continuing their Christmas tradition of hauling in a huge Christmas tree from British Columbia. 

Gauthier admitted that "it was kind of spectacular," but pressure from environmental groups forced them to look in a new direction.

Great-West Life contacted Reimer Display to create a new Christmas decoration. The task fell to Gauthier after she and Reimer saw an ad in The New Yorker featuring one of the three kings on a camel.

"So that's how it came about," Gauthier said. Reimer asked her if she could do it and Gauthier said yes, admitting she may have been a little young and a little sure of herself.

Designing the camel

Gauthier based the camels on the bull that she had created earlier. It started with a plywood silhouette of the camel. Next was styrofoam, but to shape and glued to either side. 

Learning from prior experience, she had the carpenter cantilever the legs, so they weren't coming straight down from the body.

"Then I had two different types of necks cut out, so the camels wouldn't be the same," Gauthier said.

The legs were positioned differently on all three to give them life.

The camels were then coated with paper mache before being dipped into fibreglass, giving it more weather-proofing.

The robes were interesting. Gauthier says they were made with a thick, cardboard-like material that was dipped in acetone to make them malleable. 

"I had asked Gordon if I could make one of the robes floating in the wind and he said no," Gauthier said. "But what I did was wire it up so it would be flying in the wind."

Forty-five years later, one robe continues to float.


Why the story was lost

Gauthier isn't sure why the story got lost. She used to receive newspaper clippings from her sister, who was still living in Winnipeg, which featured the camels and the story. But eventually, that story disappeared.  And while the origin seems to be lost, the camels remain.

Along with the lights on Portage Avenue and the Christmas tree at City Hall, the camels are among the city's oldest and most iconic Christmas displays. But when they were built, Gauthier wasn't thinking about that. She was just getting paid. But Reimer knew these camels would make a big impact.

"(Gordon) said you're going to be remembered for these camels, which I find really ironic," Gauthier laughed. "Everyone has forgotten. It makes me feel really old."

She is proud of them and is amazed that they have stood for so long. She originally thought they would be up a couple of years before being replaced. 

"I don't think anyone foresaw that they would be up there 45 years later, that's extraordinary," Gauthier said. "You have really nasty winters out there."


This article was first posted on November 14, 2019, with the title "Mystery of the Great-West Life camels solved".