Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
When Calgary was hit by a devastating flood in 2013, the water washed over the grounds of the Calgary Stampede just two weeks before the event was scheduled to begin. Rather than cancelling the Stampede, which seemed inevitable at the time, it became a powerful symbol of the city’s ability to rally together and recover from the largest natural disaster the city had faced in recent memory.
That urgency was captured in a slogan for the 2013 Stampede: “Hell or high water.” And miraculously, the Stampede went ahead that year, avoiding what some feared would be the first time the Stampede was cancelled due to external forces since it launched more than a century ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a different story altogether. The Stampede was cancelled last year due to widespread public-health restrictions that banned large outdoor events. Similar fairs have been cancelled again this summer, notably the Fair at the PNE in Vancouver and the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
But the Calgary Stampede organizers and the provincial government are determined to press ahead with this year’s event – the kickoff to Premier Jason Kenney’s promise of the “greatest summer ever” and a marking post to signal the end of more than a year of public-health restrictions that have dramatically reshaped life across Canada and around the world.
Mr. Kenney frequently brings up the Stampede as an example of what life will be like this summer, as COVID-19 vaccinations push down infections and hospitalizations and allow life to begin to return to normal. The government expects to announce its re-opening plan next week, and Mr. Kenney has said he expects smaller outdoor events to be allowed next month and “much larger” events – notably the Stampede – cleared to operate by July.
The Globe’s Carrie Tait looked at the current plans for the Stampede and how it has taken on an almost mythical importance for the provincial government. Right now, all that the organizers of the Calgary Stampede will say is that they are planning to hold some kind of event, subject to public-health orders, but it’s not clear what components of the event will be allowed.
In a normal year, the Stampede sees 100,000 visitors a day pack into the grounds to take in the midway, exhibition halls, rodeo and nightly grandstand show, among other events on site.
Dana Peers, the Stampede’s interim chief executive, said planners know outdoor events are considered more acceptable than indoor venues. Beyond that, he largely declined to confirm details of what this year’s event will look like.
He also could not confirm whether the annual Stampede parade will go ahead. The City of Calgary has not approved the Stampede’s parade application, but Mr. Peers said officials are working closely with Alberta Health Services and municipal officials.
North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) is still banking on a busy midway. NAME plans to bring 48 rides to the Stampede, 10 fewer than usual.
If anything resembling a normal Stampede happens this year, it will be seen as a triumph for the city and the government will herald it as proof that its management of the pandemic has worked.
The worst-case scenario is that things change so dramatically – for example, if the province has another surge of infections and hospitalizations – that the Stampede is forced to cancel after all. That would be a significant blow to people here after years of economic malaise and a traumatizing pandemic.
But it’s clear that the government doesn’t see that as an option. When asked during a recent Facebook Live question-and-answer video, the Premier was asked about whether such large events would be allowed this summer. He was blunt.
“Yes,” he said.
“I do anticipate that some smaller events can be accommodated in June while we’re still battling to get our hospitalization numbers down and the vaccines up, so that we can get to broader immunity in our population. But once that’s done, hopefully – knock on wood – towards the end of June, beginning of July, then I think we can go to potentially much larger gatherings.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.