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Rodeohead Culture at the Calgary Stampede

A look at Calgary's cowboy identity

What comes to mind when you think of Calgary? If you’re like most Canadians, the answer is likely a combination of oil, cows and Stephen Harper—and, oh yes, the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede, a celebration of cowboy culture that modestly proclaims itself “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” is an enormous, all-consuming event, anticipated months in advance by fluttering banners hoisted above traffic lights and an army of white cowboys (shoulders hunched, legs firmly grounded, left arm raised to wildly spin a rope into a gaping ‘O,’ presumably to lasso some scampering animal with triumphal cowboy furor) set against a scarlet red backdrop;. The Stampede’s relationship with its host city is unlike that of nearly any other event in the world; for more than nine decades, the Stampede has come to define Calgary’s character and identity. This is the Calgary of popular imagination, a Calgary synonymous with its annual ninety-three-year-old cowboy festival.

The Stampede is not a subtle celebration. On the first Friday following Canada Day, office workers dig out their cowboy boots and white cowboy hats from dusty closets; beer tents sprout in downtown parking lots; and mosques and businesses and community centres organize pancake breakfasts, dishing out more than five tons of flapjacks and 85,000 containers of juice in nine days. In a city whose inhabitants endure some of the longest workweeks in Canada, Stampede is a time—the time—to party. But it’s serious business too, bringing in $345 million in revenue each year. This money is branded with a particular sort of Western mythology, one inspired by the Stampede’s founder, Guy Weadick; a native of Rochester, New York, who got his start in a travelling Wild West vaudeville act. Launched in 1912, the Stampede blended two distinct mythologies: the rugged, individualistic Wild West popularized by “Buffalo Bill” Cody and cowboy fiction; and the tame, orderly Canadian West of free land, mounted police and hardworking immigrants.

In Canada, the reign of the cowboy was short-lived and limited to a few select regions, including the area around Calgary. Whereas the emergence of a ranching industry in the United States preceded the arrival of government regulation, Canada’s ranchers were a conservative bunch with close ties to the federal government; by the early twentieth century, ranching had been usurped by agriculture and oil as Calgary’s economic engine. Weadick, however, was no historian. He keenly capitalized on the international popularity of Wild West pop culture and built his Stampede around a nostalgic West that had more to do with the cabaret of Hollywood than with Western Canada’s actual past.

The Stampede’s vision stuck—today, Calgary’s cowboy identity pervades many aspects of civic life, creating a cultural rallying point in the fast-growing, ethnically and culturally diverse city of one million. At the airport, greeters dressed in string ties and cowboy hats welcome visitors to Calgary. The city’s flag, adopted in 1983, features the letter c cradling a white cowboy hat, set against a red background. Even the Calgary Parking Authority’s parking inspectors now wear uniforms complete with small black cowboy hats.

Calgary, says Aritha van Herk, a professor of English at the University of Calgary and the author of Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, is a city brimming with individualism, entrepreneurship and a can-do volunteer attitude—values that may have their roots in the Stampede’s cowboy mythology. “[Calgary] is a city that people want to prescribe an identity because it’s so diverse and so young,” she explains. Young, well-educated and affluent, the average Calgarian is an outdoorsy homeowner who wants everything they would be able to find elsewhere, and will work hard to get it. “We take big risks. The Stampede is when we kick back and pretend we’re something we’re not. We’re not cowboys. Everyone knows it’s make-believe,” says van Herk.

Still, van Herk’s take on the Stampede as a carnivalesque celebration of cowboy hedonism doesn’t do justice to the seriousness with which Calgary’s cowboy heritage is treated by business leaders and city officials. Consider the White Hat Ceremony. Unofficially begun in the late nineteen-forties by long-serving mayor Don Mackay, the ceremony involves the bestowment of a white cowboy hat—a symbol taken from the Stampede, but not necessarily from Calgary’s own past—upon visiting dignitaries and celebrities. While in the nineteen-forties, nobody would have thought to associate a white hat with Calgary, by 1959 it had become an internationally recognized symbol of the city.

Calgary has used the Stampede’s cowboy imagery to construct a particular image for itself, one that emphasizes inclusiveness and openness and serves as both a civic identity and a magnet for business investment. But when that good image is in danger of being tarnished, city officials are all too quick to roll back the welcome mat.

In the late nineties, however, the ceremony was marred by controversy. In 1997, Jiang Zemin, then president of China, was formally “white-hatted” on a state visit to Calgary. One year later, prominent Chinese activist Wei Jingsheng visited Calgary, but no white hat was given to him. Outraged, the pro-democracy leader accused city officials of ignoring China’s human rights abuses. The city dismissed the charges, arguing that the white hat “should not be politicized.” Then, in 1999, during a trade mission that netted billions of dollars worth of business deals, another white hat was awarded to Zhu Rongji, the prime minister of China, despite well-publicized criticism of the leader on the grounds of human rights and protests by Calgary’s Tibetan community.

Calgary has used the Stampede’s cowboy imagery to construct a particular image for itself, one that emphasizes inclusiveness and openness and serves as both a civic identity and a magnet for business investment. But when that good image is in danger of being tarnished, city officials are all too quick to roll back the welcome mat. The White Hat controversy isn’t the only example: in 2002, when G8 leaders descended upon Calgary for a summit, the city spent $300,000 for a “Wild West hootenanny” for thousands of bureaucrats and foreign journalists. Meanwhile, the city was doing everything in its power to block dissent against the G8, going so far as to ban activists from protesting in city parks. Even the local media adopted a jaundiced view of the activists, lauding Calgary’s mayor as “the new sheriff of Cowtown, gone gunslinger.” One columnist joked that anyone who dared mount an illegal protest and block downtown traffic would face angry Calgarians who’d be only too happy to “accelerate their pickups to full ramming speed.”

Calgary is far from the only city whose civic identity revolves around a mythologized view of the past. Think of Montreal’s supposedly “European” ambiance or Victoria’s alleged fetish for all things British. The challenge with such a one-dimensional civic identity is that it simplifies the complex nature of a city. This was especially obvious last year, when Imperial Oil moved its headquarters from Toronto to Calgary. The Toronto-centric national media featured much hand-wringing about the culture shock that “cosmopolitan” Torontonians would face in Calgary. As if to confirm the media’s absurd hick-town insinuations, Calgary city officials sent to Toronto a delegation of cowboys and cowgirls to treat Imperial workers to a pancake breakfast hoedown.

Civic identity can be a difficult thing to nail down, especially when it revolves around a one-trick pony like cowboy culture. Occasionally, the cowboy myth can be ironically twisted, as with Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo, a festival of experimental theatre. Most of the time, though, it serves only to simplify a complex, dynamic city. Sometimes a little sceptical self-examination is in order—and hey, isn’t scepticism a cowboy trait?

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.