In the decade before 1912, the population of Calgary had grown from 5,000 to 70,000. These were city dwellers, and their relationship to rodeo and cowboy culture was largely limited to the city’s annual cowboy party. “The West was already over,” says Prof. Rusted. “The majority of people in Calgary at that time didn’t have any more connection to the old West than people do today.”
The paradox is that this celebration of opportunity and new beginnings should be so backward-looking and one-dimensional. “Southern Alberta was far more than ranching,” argues University of Calgary historian Max Foran. Yet Calgarians and their visitors chose to dress like Hollywood cowboys, not historically accurate farmers, Indian Agents or Chinese railway labourers – and “certainly there’s nothing on coal mining.”
“Cowboys and ranching are a far more attractive bit of history,” says Prof. Foran. “If you put the white cowboy hat on the rancher, it looks much better than a hard hat.”
Indeed, nearly anyone who’s anyone in Canadian politics and business has worn the Stampede’s symbolic white head gear, from oft-hatted Stephen Harper to royalty to titans of business and the newly minted Alberta premier Alison Redford, a red Tory with global aspirations.
But why does one of Canada’s best-educated, most prosperous and fastest-growing cities continue to brand itself with cowboy slogans and cartoon versions of history?
Prof. Foran notes that there’s a serendipitous continuity: “The oil and gas industry that supplanted the ranching industry as an economic force shares exactly the same philosophy: the great outdoors, risk taking, masculinity and a rugged, level playing field.”
“If anything is true about Calgary in 2012, it’s that we are a cliché generator,” says Ms. Porteous. “There’s a ton of self-rewarding going on about how we are coming of age, about how we’re all entrepreneurs, no matter what our line of business. About how that cowboy spirit can be seen today in all of these manifestations.”
She adds: “I think what is true, however, is that Calgary is surprising. It’s not what you expect. And maybe it’s more than you expect. More interesting than you expect.”
The thing about the Stampede might be that it’s the only collective yarn that seems to stick – just fake enough, just real enough, just goofy and interesting enough that it works for nearly anyone. It can pretty much mean whatever you want, whether that’s a symbol of colonialism and the “borrowing” of First Nations land that helped make Alberta rich, or a drunken, 10-day bender, or a world-class cross-cultural carnival founded on community spirit. It’s curiously inclusive.
Connecting with the Howdy Folk
Like many Calgarians, I cannot forget my first summer job at the Stampede, mopping floors in the cafeteria basement of the Big Four building: $6 an hour, tripping over spilled soft drinks, beer and vomit. It was fun being at the epicentre of the biggest party of the year, yet myself and the other teenage janitors knew that kids with better connections got to be Howdy Folk, greeting people at the Stampede park gates from around the world for nearly three times the pay.
That’s the way it works here. If you network hard and hustle enough, you can triple your wages, and not be stuck in a basement somewhere. That’s the Alberta dream.
And in that spirit, today’s Stampede in some ways is comparable to a 21st-century barn raising: With only about 300 core staff, the Stampede’s not-for-profit corporation marshals 2,400 volunteers, organized by volunteer committees year-round, and today all connected by mobile phones and social media.
Stampede President Michael Casey, a Calgary lawyer, says that few other major festivals in North America are so much the product of the community. “There are parties, functions, family events, year after year are based on the Stampede. You can’t arrive in the city without knowing the Stampede is on. People decorate the streets. And companies take pride in having their employees be part of the Stampede as volunteers.”
Mr. Casey estimates that he’ll spend half his Stampede outside the grounds, talking to people at community breakfasts and corporate board meetings. In fact, many locals participate in Stampede events without ever setting foot on the midway. That’s how embedded the event has become within the local landscape.
Businesses across Calgary rolled out citywide Stampede decorations weeks ahead of schedule this year. Infield rodeo seats have been sold out since last Christmas, and other tickets have been selling at record rates. That semi-official index of Calgary’s prosperity, the annual “canvas auction,” hit an all-time high this year, with over $4-million pledged by Calgary businesses to run logos on the sides of chuck wagons at the Stampede.
Admittedly, it’s relatively easy to feel prosperous and optimistic in a province that sits on top of 180 billion barrels of oil, in a world facing a long-term energy shortage. But the success of the Stampede also has much to do with its connectivity.