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The real Winnie was named after Winnipeg

Ryerson University

On Aug. 23, 1914, a veterinarian named Harry Colebourn left his adopted hometown of Winnipeg to go to war. The next day, he noted in his diary, he "Bought Bear $20" from a trapper in White River, Ont., proving animal ownership laws were somewhat more relaxed 100 years ago. Winnie, as Colebourn named the female cub (after Winnipeg), accompanied him to basic training in Valcartier, Que., across the Atlantic Ocean by ship and to England, where she became mascot of the regiment to which Colebourn served as vet, the Fort Garry Horse. When he learned he was heading to the front, Colebourn left Winnie in the care of the London Zoo where, years later, she was spotted by author A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin. Milne's beloved 1926 classic, Winnie-the-Pooh, is read by children to this day.

On Wednesday a new exhibition called Remembering the Real Winnie opens in Toronto. Globe Books editor Mark Medley spoke to Doina Popescu, founding director of Ryerson University's Ryerson Image Centre, which hosts the exhibition until Dec. 7, about the world's most famous bear.

How did this exhibition come together?

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Lindsay Mattick, the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, came to Ryerson with Harry's archives and asked us if there would be value in doing something with this on the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

How big is the archive?

It's a collection of photographs, six diaries written by Harry Colebourn, newspaper clippings, letters, invoices – it's the personal life of a professional soldier and veterinarian. It's not drawers and drawers. I would say it's one good drawer of material.

Frankly, I'm surprised it was still in the possession of the family. I would have figured a university acquired this years ago.

All I know is it was still in [their] possession and Lindsay came back to her alma mater to see how we could possibly work with this. The opportunity to bring an archive to life is a remarkable experience for all involved, so we just simply jumped at the occasion. Archives are essentially covered in the dust of history. You have to blow that dust off and bring the vibrancy back.

I think I first learned about the real story of Winnie-the-Pooh through that old Heritage Minute that aired in the mid-nineties. Do you think most people know there was a real bear?

I think it's a generational question. I think a lot of younger people automatically think of [Disney]. Those of us who are, well, of a generation that were told the stories of World War I will of course remember the Winnie story.

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What's the most surprising thing you discovered?

The most revelatory moment, I would say, was seeing the six tiny hand-written diaries. All of a sudden you had the human being Harry Colebourn across from you.

You sense his tension, you sense his fear in the war, you sense his moments of relaxation when he spends time with Winnie. While his diaries don't give long narratives, you sense his person, his character. It's extremely moving.

One hundred years later, why do you think people are still interested in not only Winnie-the-Pooh but the story behind the character?

Winnie was a symbol of peace and love in a time of horror, a symbol of survival, and I think we still have a need to gravitate toward these kinds of mascots. It's a timeless story.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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