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What the 100-year-old Calgary Stampede means to Canada Add to ...

“It’s a huge networking festival, and corporate events are now a major fundraising source for many charities.” says urbanist Richard White, former head of Calgary’s downtown association. The urban-rural connection celebrated at the very first 1912 Stampede continues in the way networks that are rebuilt, year after year, during the Stampede. It’s no coincidence, says Mr. White, that “our United Way campaign raises more money per capita than any other city.”

Not that a lot of actual business gets done during the festivities, says Adam Legge, president and CEO of Calgary’s Chamber of Commerce. “It’s really about focusing on relationships. The festival itself is about how to nurture our dealings in a far more social way.”

This connectivity is Calgary’s secret weapon – the propensity of newcomers to forge links. This quality is arguably what Mr. Nenshi tapped into when he took his long shot mayoral campaign into the realm of neighbourhood coffee parties and Twitter. It’s what launched the Calgary-based Reform Party in the 1980s, just as it once did the CCF-NDP, which held its first meeting in Calgary in 1932 – and both movements changed Canadian history.

Still, for all that it’s networked and diversified – as volunteer committees have reached out to the city’s varying communities – the Stampede still inevitably reflects power and privilege.

For many people here, whatever else the Stampede means, rodeo is the main event. And if you’re lucky enough to grab a $300 infield seat directly overlooking the action, you’ll experience it as a contact sport: daring, punishing, and potentially deadly to both rider and animal alike. Like Calgary itself, the rodeo is a gritty historical struggle for success and resources in a high-tech marketplace.

Yet looking around that infield, what you see is a sea of white faces. While the Ismaili Stampede breakfast may be Calgary’s future, much of the Stampede represents a past that is not entirely distant yet.

Much of that goes back to the Stampede’s sometimes complicated relationship with the Treaty 7 First Nations of southern Alberta.

“It’s still a story about how our ancestors shared the land with the new settlers,” says Dorothy First Rider, a senior researcher for the (Kainai) Blood Tribe. She notes the Stampede’s tendency to showcase colourful powwows and teepees but not to honour the memories of great Indian rodeo champions like Tom Three Persons and Jim Gladstone. The Bloods recently made an official appeal to the Stampede to finally recognize Indian cowboys equally in its pantheon.

“You cannot have the West without both the cowboy and the Indian version of it,” she says. “There have been a lot of challenges in that relationship over the years, and I think what has come out is a lot of competition between the two sides. And a lot of rodeo.”

 

A down-home debate

 

If the Stampede is to have a bright future, it will be based on its ability to negotiate its own complexity.

This became clear earlier this month, when 550 people here attended a Walrus magazine debate on cowboy culture: Are Calgarians living in a post-yahoo information society that has outgrown its cowboy identity, they asked, or an eternal Cowtown whose Stampede includes everyone? It was a passionate debate.

“I don’t know how much in Munich people over-analyze Oktoberfest,” says Kris Demeanor, Calgary’s poet laureate, reflecting on the debate and his own childhood memories of the Stampede when he dressed up like an Indian warrior. “It becomes an ordeal if you’re not enjoying the Stampede with the wide-eyed joy of a child. It’s the freedom that a giant, sanctioned party gives – even though, the rest of the year, Calgary is bizarrely conformist.”

The debate and other local discussion seem to show that Calgary seems to have dropped some of its own storyline on the way to the Stampede: We’re realizing that we’re not necessarily who we thought we were.

“It’s always okay to question, or even be a little insecure,” says Mr. Demeanor. “What are we about, what are we trying to show the world, instead of being a one-note place? Because we are so many things, that’s sometimes confusing for us.”

This year, the Stampede expects to break all previous attendance records, and exceed 1.2 million fairground visitors. Whatever the story’s really about, people still love the rodeo, the midway and the free breakfasts.

“I think what I’m observing is that people who are disenchanted are taking another look,” says Deanne Carson, the Stampede’s VP of marketing.

Ultimately, Ms. Carson muses, Calgary’s cowboy-identity crisis enjoys a kind of timelessness. “The first Stampede was a goodbye to the Old West,” she says. “The irony is that we’re still asking some of those same questions, same themes. Will we be having the same conversation 100 years from now?”

 

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