Imagine a walled city in Game of Thrones, minus the severed penises and the dwarves, whose inhabitants struggle incessantly over who should be king, all the while trying to keep their enemies alive, because the battle is the ideal they really believe in.
That pretty much describes how residents fight in Banff, the most famous small town on Earth (even though that motto has been unfairly claimed by Woodstock, N.Y.). It’s a small town, but it’s also an idea with streets and elk running through it – a place full of people in a national park full of wilderness, co-existing in a state of permanent tension.
Admittedly, the locals have been unusually restive lately. Eighteen kilometres down the Trans-Canada in Canmore, where the wreckage from June’s floods is still being bulldozered into heaps, the province’s vaunted entrepreneurial class is arguing with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency about flood-relief money going only to homeowners, not landlords.
Meanwhile, a Banff landlord reportedly asked two tenants to pay $1-million each in key money to renew leases on the crowded main street. (One paid; the other left town.)
A less-noted sideshow has been playing out in Banff’s local Royal Canadian Legion, whose members elected last May as its first vice-president John McKenna, who among other stalwart things happens to be the town’s only visible transvestite. (“I’m a guy in a dress” is how he describes himself.)
He was moved by the open-mindedness of the vote, and considered holding a gay-pride event in Banff this summer. Then, at the Legion a month ago, Mr. McKenna happened to say, “I have Saturday off. I can drive to Calgary to get my Legion uniform.” Whereupon a long-time member said, “And you’re not buying the skirt!” Mr. McKenna took this as evidence of lingering homophobia, considered resigning (but hasn’t) and abandoned his Proud Banff plan. Instead, he plans to hold a series of events to build a bigger gay presence in Banff, including a gay-and-lesbian ski weekend this winter. Meanwhile, the offending Legionnaire has offered to buy him a beer.
Argue first, then go camping
For 125 years, ever since Sir John A. Macdonald expropriated the Banff hot springs and surrounded them with the protected wilderness that became Canada’s first national park, the residents have argued about what the town and the park should be. The ground rules – according to Parks Canada’s mission statement, “to protect and present Canada’s natural heritage and foster public understanding and enjoyment ” – were established more than a century ago. But locals love to argue the precepts anyway.
Consider Peter Poole – tall, reed-like, 40-ish, prone to eccentric neckties – whom I saw dashing out of his house one day. Mr. Poole is well-known in Banff as an environmental engineer and designer, conservationist, baker and birdwatcher.
“What are you off to?” I said.
“I’m going to intervene against a development before town council,” he replied.
The project in question was a 172-room, three-storey hotel, the latest from Banff Caribou Properties, the corporate forearm of Wim Pauw, the town’s most prominent landlord and multimillionaire. Mr. Poole is a fan of Mr. Pauw’s, but had issues with the project’s effect on a heritage building – a valuable commodity in a place often criticized for its “Barney Rubble architecture.” The name of the new hotel is The Moose.
“Intervening’s not going to win you many dinner invitations,” I said.
“I know, “ Mr. Poole sighed. “But I know all these guys, I see them every day.” When his intra-village conflicts turn personal, he invites his opponents camping. This seems to work. “Or you say, ‘Can you take my kid to the hockey practice tomorrow?’ And then, ‘See you tomorrow in the public hearing.’”
And so, surprisingly enough in a town of 8,422 permanent residents who are mostly not afraid to have an opinion, you rarely hear of people who aren’t talking to one another.
Everyone in Banff sees everyone else all the time because the national park is everyone’s backyard. News travels at warp speed. I know of a woman in Banff who drove to Canmore to do her laundry after her washing machine broke down. She parked in front of a motel next to the laundromat. The next day in Banff, three people asked her what she was doing at the motel.
Clearly, divorces and split-ups get noticed. There are, points out Lorraine Carson-Widmer, who has lived here for years, “lots of liaisons, lots of affairs.” But even with bigger social ruptures, people are reluctant to point a finger.