The annual Hays Stampede breakfast has long been a highlight of the Stampede calendar for the Calgary establishment, who steel themselves with pancakes and spiked orange juice before downing a shot of sillabub – the concoction of fresh milk, wine, gin, mouthwash and a long list of other semi-digestible ingredients that test the mettle of the stoutest stomachs.
People quaffed the pale-coloured drink just before 10 a.m. as they have for decades, but the mood among the politicians and business leaders who attended the 3,000-person event on Sunday reflected the more subdued climate of the city, where thousands have been thrown out of work over the last two years.
"For some reason, I feel really serious today," said host Dan Hays, former Liberal senator and senior partner in the Calgary offices of Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, as he introduced the "elixir" that he said creates new friends and community.
"While we have from time to time – and this is no exception – problems in our hometown, when you look at the world as a whole, we're pretty damn lucky."
Low oil prices since mid-2014 have seen oil sands projects cancelled, and crude and natural gas drilling plummet. Alberta's unemployment rate sits at 7.9 per cent, and the province says 36,500 jobs have been lost this year alone.
For corporate Calgary, the Stampede is often a time of relaxed networking. However, this year the economic downtown has pushed corporate leaders to cancel a number of Stampede events, including those held by Peters & Co. Ltd. and FirstEnergy Capital Corp. Many of the parties that remain have been quieter affairs.
The Hays breakfast stands apart from the prevailing economic climate. Attracting both those in the peak of their careers and a swath of retirees, the invitation-only event in its 66th year is held at Calgary's Heritage Park, a pastoral historical village and museum smack dab in the middle of Calgary's wealthy, southwest residential neighbourhoods. Sponsored by Peters & Co. founder Rob Peters and his family and by elite business law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP, the breakfast is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
The mingling Sunday morning was less rushed than normal, and full of discussions about whether the cautious optimism about oil market stabilization is warranted. Some also noted there is a silver lining to a quieter time at the Stampede.
"It's more relaxed at these smaller events – more intimate," said Cynthia Moore, the business development manager for a public relations firm.
While business fanfare is muted this year, the politicking is ramping up. In a city known for its conservatism, the Hays breakfast was founded by a prominent Liberal, Pearson-era cabinet minister Harry Hays, and is carried on by his Grit-minded son. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi calls the Hays breakfast "a petting zoo for politicians," and in past years, federal leaders – including the Liberals' Justin Trudeau, before his election as prime minister, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May – have glad-handed at the event.
On Saturday evening, Conservative MP Jason Kenney – campaigning for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party – received an endorsement from Stephen Harper at the former prime minister's annual barbeque at Heritage Park. Just 12 hours later, Mr. Kenney was back at the breakfast on the same site to promote his vision of uniting the province's two right-of-centre parties. He joined Mr. Nenshi, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr, and federal Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch in making the rounds.
A few hours later, people had moved on to the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre's Stampede breakfast – a non-profit centre that attracts major support from Calgary's corporate community, including from those business leaders whose children have struggled with addiction.
At the event, Brett Wilson chastised the Calgary business leaders who decided to cancel charity-themed Stampede events this year, at a time when, he argues, fundraising and community-building is more important than ever.
"Some of the corporates who've said we're going to respect the fact there's a downturn in the economy are using that as an excuse to bail on what I call an opportunity," said Mr. Wilson, chairman of Prairie Merchant Corp.
Randy Remington, chairman of Remington Development Corp. – a Calgary-based commercial builder – said with tens of thousands of Albertans out of work, the Stampede party scene this year is definitely more subdued. He said most people are preparing for at least another year of tough economic conditions.
Mr. Remington said his company had a number of projects planned years ago, when oil prices were still high, and that is now keeping his firm working.
"We're still doing okay," he said. "Obviously we could be busier."