For 10 days each July, the same joyful, unlikely thing happens: Over a million people converge on Calgary Stampede, many in cowboy disguise, in a tradition that’s now been going on for 100 years.
They dizzy themselves on midway rides and inhale exotic food like bacon funnel cake and deep-fried Kool Aid, along with an estimated two million mini-doughnuts. They cheer cowboys who fight for some of the biggest prizes in professional rodeo. And since an estimated 70 per cent of Stampede-goers are locals, and thus voters, politicians of all stripes can be found flipping pancakes, however ineptly, at breakfasts across the city.
Out-of-towners might be surprised to learn that one of the best and largest Stampede breakfasts is hosted by the Ismaili community in the parking lot of their Calgary temple – over 5,000 people eating pancakes with east African bharazi (curried pigeon peas), while touring the temple and admiring the fanciful Ismaili parade float. Last year, Mayor Naheed Nenshi officially launched the event from atop the float, just before a posse of black-hatted cowboys offered free line-dancing lessons.
No one bothers calling it multiculturalism any more. Just as they don’t boast about the fact that newer Canadians attend the Stampede at a higher rate than the rest of the population, with 29 per cent of Stampede midway-goers identifying themselves as visible minorities – like their mayor, who also knows his way around a horse.
At 100 years, the Stampede is clearly a hybrid – a collision of rural and urban, local and global, past and present.
Calgary is often stigmatized as having been a very young city for a very long time: a city unable to grow up, fixating on its imaginary cowboy past while tearing down historic landmarks, blowing up inner-city hospitals and hedging its future on non-renewable resources.
But that’s only partly true, because Calgary is also a city that’s long been coming of age – a complex, urban, power centre with an annual carnival whose estimated attendance exceeds both New Orleans’s Mardi Gras and Nevada’s desert gathering Burning Man.
And what happens at the Stampede doesn’t just stay in Calgary. With the Alberta-centric Harper government in place, Canada’s balance of trade, Pacific Rim relations, environmental policy, immigration policy and more are all affected by the city that goes Wild West each July.
When Mr. Harper travelled to China on a trade and tourism mission last February, it wasn’t Quebec City’s Bonhomme that he brought with him, but Harry the Horse, the Stampede mascot, and a passel of cowboys that urged the world’s most populous country to visit Calgary this year for the Stampede’s historic centennial.
It’s not a question of whether you approve of the Stampede or like cowboy culture. The people wearing cowboy hats are the same ones changing the country – and so it’s worth wondering what the whole thing means to them. It might not be what people think elsewhere.
Arriving from Ottawa in 1998, Vanessa Porteous admits she carried “all kinds of prejudices” about the Stampede. “But I like being in a city with a genuine carnival, a traditional carnival. I loved it when I figured out that the Stampede was kind of like [Toronto’s] Caribana and Pride Day, all rolled up into one.”
On one level, everything a newcomer like Ms. Porteous had heard about the Stampede is true: Yes, there are extravagant, debaucherous parties you won’t get invited to. Yes, there are oddball German tourists dressed in frontier buckskin in the Indian Village. And yes, the whole city gets a little sluttier – including the menfolk, who teeter about tipsy on Coors Light in tight jeans and boots like Gene Autry in amateur drag.
What’s not quite so factual is the central myth that the Stampede tries to sell.
“The Stampede isn’t really a celebration of the cowboy past of the city,” says Ms. Porteous, who is the artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects, the city’s longest standing modern stage company. “It’s a bacchanal. Nobody really cares about the past – [because] not many Calgarians have been here very long.”
And that’s the heart of the matter: Ever since Guy Weadick, an American showman, founded the Stampede in 1912, this invented tradition keeps re-inventing itself. Fueled by turn-of-the-century pulp fiction and live-action cowboy shows, the Stampede launched on a romantic notion about the closing of the Wild West and was embraced by an urban population unsure of their own future, most of whom had bet everything on their new city.
“With the huge influx of immigration, the myth of the West allowed people to interpret themselves in a new place,” explains Brian Rusted, a University of Calgary professor and Stampede volunteer who has studied cowboy culture. “We used this identity to create some common ground.”