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Banff: Where the citizens fight, but don’t hold a grudge

From key-money disputes to sexual sensitivity to the eternal battle of development, Banff dwellers live with tension in close quarters – and somehow manage to stay civil.


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.

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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.

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"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.

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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.

When the Mineral Springs Hospital maternity ward closed last March because it couldn't guarantee patient safety – meaning it is no longer possible to be born in Banff – Ian MacDonald and Jane Fowke, a married pair of doctors with a significant obstetrical practice, roused a public campaign against it. That prompted another local doctor, Nancy Blaney, and three colleagues to publish a blistering letter in the local paper that effectively put an end to the uprising.

Yet Dr. Blaney still assists Dr. MacDonald in surgery, and she still plays tennis with Dr. Fowke, though no one has suggested dinner. "I think in some respects, yes, you move on faster here," Dr. Blaney says. "I guess you can't get away very easily."

This may be what happens when you live within an idea that is bigger than you are: You learn to be civil. There might be a lesson there for other parts of the country.

'The sky is falling' – unless it can't

Mr. Poole got out of the car at the town hall, and I made my way to Wild Flour, a local coffee shop. Everyone goes to Wild Flour. Monica Andreeff was sitting on the patio, smoothing her skirt over her knees, one of which is titanium: a keen skier, she has had 14 arthroscopies, a fact I might not know in a bigger place. "You hate to switch," she says of her long-time physiotherapist, the way other people speak of their hairdressers.

Ms. Andreeff is executive director of the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment, which is another way of saying she's a lobbyist for the tourism industry. (Mr. Pauw's Banff Caribou Properties is one of her clients.) She isn't shy about her affection for what she calls "a balanced approach" to development. I was barely in my seat when she told me that 97 per cent of Banff National Park is protected wilderness, and only 3 per cent is railway lines, highways and townsite: "So when the environmentalists jump up and down and say the sky is falling, it can't fall," she smiled.

What she didn't say was that most of the prime wildlife habitat is within the 3 per cent, the same narrow strip of valley-bottom that everyone prefers. That's the way Banff's biggest ongoing feud is fought – rhetorically, and continuously.

Ms. Andreeff was in a good mood, as she ought to be: Last month, Parks Canada approved the installation of via ferrata at Mount Norquay, a local ski resort, for summer use. Via ferrata are a European invention, iron guide wires and ladders bolted to a mountainside to allow inexperienced tourists to ascend safely and easily. Conservation-minded Banffites (some of whom are in Ms. Andreeff's book club, and taunt her) hate the via ferrata at Norquay (which is prime summer habitat for grizzlies) as much as they despise the iron-and-glass Glacier Skywalk that will open in Jasper National Park next year.

Jim Buckingham, a long-time Banff outdoorsman, summed up the feeling: "Parks Canada has shifted from nature to sales."

Ms. Andreeff considered that an extreme view. "Visitor needs are changing," she said. "We don't just want them to drive around like the Griswolds." Thanks to the iron ladders, "people from Toronto, for instance, will feel that they've been mountain climbing." (Take that, people from Toronto.)

Ms. Andreeff's bold opinions serve as a badge of her clients' independence from local conventional (i.e., environmentalist) thinking. Last month, she wore her mink coat to a hospital fundraiser. A flaming hula skirt would have aroused less comment. ("I wouldn't wear fur," another women in Banff told me privately. "I'd be shot. We live in a national park.")

Eventually Ms. Andreef drew a bead on Harvey Locke, a local lawyer, conservationist, photographer and writer (multiple roles are a very Banff thing) who founded the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation initiative, which is trying to create a continuous wildlife corridor down the western spine of North America. He also nearly won Calgary Centre for the Liberals in the 2012 federal election. But he is most famous for his work on At the Crossroads, the contentious 1996 Bow Valley study that led Sheila Copps – an eastern Liberal – to cap Banff's physical and commercial growth forever in 1998. Saying the words "Bow Valley report" in Banff is like saying "national energy program" in Calgary: Someone is sure to start twitching.

"They have a really elitist view of how national parks should be used and enjoyed," Ms. Andreeff told me. "People are bad. Wildlife are good."

Half an hour later, Harvey Locke walked into Wild Flour. Did Ms. Andreeff's words bother him? Not at all. "If I see Monica on the street today, I say, 'Hi, how are you?' And she does the same, with genuine cordiality."

If a conflict counts, you can bear to lose

Mr. Locke is used to local notoriety. His 1990s knockdown with Ted Hart, then-mayor of Banff, was a decisive victory. The town's imprint was reduced, and future development was limited to 350,000 square feet. (Toronto's Yorkdale Mall, the fifth largest in Canada, is three times that size.) As of this summer, the last of those square feet have been claimed and await construction. There's no more room at the inn.

The cap frustrates some local businesses, but according to Randall MacKay, Banff's chief planner, "it's forcing everyone to learn to live with limits to growth."

What saves the winners and losers from begrudging one another is that they are both fighting for meaningful ideas – that everyone should be able to use the park, or that wilderness matters more. Those are grand notions with a lot at stake. Try to find a similarly clear motivating vision these days in Toronto: In a large city, where it's easier to hide and ideals dissolve in the steam of a thousand conflicting interests, each one of which insists it is all-important, these people would tear out each other's throats. Here, in a town within a park that is an idea within a country, they agree to disagree as a tenet of their strangely tolerant little civilization.

"Banff is made up of people from all over the world," Laurie Harvey, a resident of 35 years, explained to me one afternoon. "Maybe they came to escape, or to start over. But they don't come just to belong."

They come for the idea of the place, in its many mutations: birder's heaven, tourist track, ski and party central, animals, wilderness. If they stay, they have no choice but to stay as boosters of the fragile totality.

To be here and now, or not to be

At the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, maybe Banff has something to tell us about how to live where we live – about developing not just a sense of place, but an idea of what the place we live stands for, in a grand sense, especially in its contradictions.

Toronto these days is a stalled, divided city, split between the reasonable interests of suburbanites and the equally compelling needs of its downtown core, a conflict that whirls around its controversial, side-taking mayor, Rob Ford. But what if, instead of pivoting on Mr. Ford, Torontonians defined themselves by a bigger idea – say, that of being one of the largest, most ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan, intensely dense but deeply local cities on Earth? If you define where you live not by its ruling class's demands but by the ideas behind the place, each interest is forced to admit the presence of its opponents, and co-exist with them.

Calgary was (and largely still is, despite its progressive mayor, Naheed Nenshi) defined by the economic interests of the oil patch. What if it were to rally instead around the idea of its true, conflicting multiple identities, that of a city that needs the oil patch and desperately needs not to need it, as climate change and a potentially less oil-sands-dependent world require?

That isn't to say one or more points of view will not dominate in either place, but at least if we admit that where we live also represents ideas bigger than our own interests, the less established points of view are still recognized, and their proponents do not feel excluded. Call it enlightened boosterism.

Boosters have a terrible reputation these days, thanks to modern public relations. But most of the people who made this country, and especially Banff, were boosters – people who believed in an array of ideas, and sometimes conflicting ones, to the point of action.

One of Banff's biggest all-time boosters was John Murray Gibbon. Born in Ceylon in 1875, educated at Oxford (he studied poetry and music), by 1913 he was the CPR's general publicity agent in Montreal. He touted the railway endlessly and created the CPR's tourist-attracting ad campaigns, but he also commissioned concerts and paintings of the mountains (you can see them at Banff's Whyte Museum these days) and helped to invent the idea of a distinct Canadian mountain culture.

Along the way, he climbed mountains, founded the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies (a cousin to the Alpine Club of Canada), and wrote 30 books about his adopted land. He died in Montreal, but his ashes are buried in the old cemetery in Banff, the place he loved most – a place where it was possible to believe in human ambition, and in something bigger, at the same time.

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