Register Saturday | July 13 | 2024

An Open Letter to Montreal

On Behalf of Calgary

Dear Montreal,

Calgary here. I’m writing today because I have a problem. No, it’s not my rugged good looks. Or my square-shouldered Western sensibilities. And no, it’s not that my wallet is weighted down with so much money I can hardly get a decent mosey going. No. The problem is pie, and the allotment thereof.

A certain author (let’s call him “Will”) has often been criticized for pointing out that Canada has no central metropolis. No equivalent of London or Paris. No Tokyo, no Buenos Aires. No single city that dominates the country. “Well,” comes the inevitable challenge. “What about Toronto?”

To which he replies, “Well, what about it?” First off, you’re dealing with a country that is roughly 25 percent francophone. So right out of the gate, with Toronto you’re only talking about English-Canada, not the whole country. More importantly, London, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires—these are national capitals. Toronto is not.

“Ah! But what about English-language media? Isn’t that centred in Toronto?” Um, no. The vast majority of Canadians (sadly, but undeniably) still prefer to plug into American pop culture rather than what is produced in Toronto. Canada’s two national English-language papers and various nightly news broadcasts may originate there, but Lloyd Robertson and the Globe and Mail do not a Paris make.

“That we are even having this debate, proves my very point!” cries our stalwart author. In Britain and France, in Japan or Argentina, no one doubts the overwhelming importance of London, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires. Not for a second.

In Canada, Ottawa may be where our MPs congregate, but—and this is why I’m writing you today, cher Montréal—our political power base is centred primarily in two cities: Montreal and Calgary. These are the two cities that are setting the national agenda. There is a “Calgary school of thought” (on the hard-hearted right) and a Montreal one (of the muddle-headed left). One is ascendant. The other is older, more entrenched. Both seek to dictate the terms of debate. Ah. But how to divide the pie?

At this stage, many readers will be pulling their hair out by the clumpful over Calgary’s growing influence. And, with Monsieur Harper now rounding up kittens at gunpoint and sending them into combat, it will only be a matter of time before we have, right here at home, Soldiers! With guns! In our streets! (Or rather, this being the Canadian military we’re talking about, Soldiers! With a gun! In our streets!) Yes. A Calgary-fuelled military coup is all but inevitable, so you might as well start sucking up to us now. In the meantime—and until that glorious day when jackbooted shock troops in Stetsons scissor-march into Ottawa and across the river into the idyllic innocence of Hull—I’d like to present you with this complementary fruit basket and two-for-one coupons from Peters’ Drive-In (drinks & gratuities not included).

Montreal and Calgary are shaping our national agenda and may be for some time, so we need to come to an understanding. A rapprochement, if you will. First, you need to understand—Baghdad-bound kittens aside—we aren’t quite the boogeyman you’ve been led to believe. Calgary is the straw man of Canada’s political left.

Know also that as the author of this epistle, I have no particular vested interest in Calgary. My work is not based in Calgary, nor do I have family here. My wife and I came to Calgary seven years ago, and for the same reasons many people do: the clean air, the opportunities, the sheer and unyielding optimism. It was refreshing. After all these years, people still come West to reinvent themselves. (Case in point: Toronto’s own Stephen Harper. And what a cuddle-bunny he is!)

True, Calgary does have a large proportion of American expats, but it’s only around 6 percent of the population—and most of them are Democrats. Like the majority of expat Americans in Canada, our Americans voted for Al Gore, which is to say they’re left-leaning (by American standards). The influence of Calgary’s “Al Gore Democrats” has been greatly exaggerated, mainly by people looking to justify their own biases against the city. (“Calgary is just so…so American,” they say, voices dropping on that last pornographic term.)

No. I can assure you that Calgary is very much a Canadian city. And proudly so. Contrary to popular opinion, the CBC does not hold a monopoly on what constitutes “Canadian values,” and here in Calgary we proudly mumble the words to our national anthem with as much conviction as anyone.

Want to know Calgary’s real secret? All that “workingman,” “grassroots,” “squinting into the horizon with sun-creased eyes” stuff? Pure bunk. Calgary is not in any way a workingman’s town. We don’t build anything. We have no equivalent of Vancouver’s docks or Montreal’s port. Calgary is a city of CEOs, a city of head offices. There’s a reason the air is so clean, a reason we don’t have a pall of smog hanging over the city—that would require industry.

Edmonton is the real heart of Alberta’s oil patch (and they tilt to the left, so there you go). The Edmonton Oilers hockey team is aptly named. With the Calgary Flames, a better choice would have been “the CEOs.” (Though chanting “Go, Calgary Chief Executive Officers, Go!” might take some doing.)

Calgary is a hopelessly white collar town, so if you do come for a visit, please ignore the self-conscious “howdys” and Stampede-induced “yee-haws.” Imagine if once a year Montrealers dressed up like French-Canadian voyageurs and donned colourful sashes and carried canoes around and piled stacks of beaver pelts in their bank lobbies and hotel foyers—and then complained, “Everyone thinks we’re just a bunch of voyageurs!” That’s how surreal the Stampede truly is.

Another interesting nugget o’ truth for you to chew upon (nugget in the chicken sense, rather than “grizzled prospector”): Calgary, with a population now over one million, is more ethnically diverse than Montreal. Shocking, but true. Don’t believe me? Check StatsCan. Of course, “more multicultural” does not mean “more fashionable,” “better dressed,” or “more insouciant,” and Montreal’s status when it comes to nightlife, cuisine, spectacles, new music and general all-round “joie de vivre-ness” remains unassailable. (Though, I gotta say, in terms of pure fun, St. John’s may have you beat.) And anyway, as far as the whole multicultural thing goes, Vancouver and Toronto trump us both on that score. Neither of us can claim to be the most ethnically diverse anything.

What Calgary does have, especially when it comes to problem-solving, is common sense: relentless, unwavering common sense.

This is a city of oil company head offices whose light-rail transit system is wind powered (that is, runs on electricity generated by wind). Why? Because it made sense, that’s why. A city where, when they were considering building a new hockey arena, they surveyed the city’s youth, found out that skateboarding was far and away the number one sport—and built a massive, state-of-the-art skateboarding park instead. The city then turned around (and this is classic Calgary) and launched a crackdown on skateboarders outside the park.

There exists no Gordian knot so large that Calgarians can’t slice through it. There is a clarity of purpose here that may seem blunt at times, even cold, but can also be invigorating—like a bracing wind coming in over the mountains. And as anyone who has ever suffered through one of those intensely unfocused, maddening debates that Montreal seems to specialize in, clarity is not necessarily a bad thing, just as endless dithering is not necessarily a virtue. (Remember Junior Martin, our glorious former PM? Exactly.)

In Montreal, the issues are always so messy. There’s always yet another esoteric and only tangentially related aspect of an argument to be considered, always more angles to mull over, more nuance to be layered on (with a trowel, if need be). In Montreal, nothing ever seems to get resolved and every statement is inevitably followed with a “Yes, but…`” It isn’t a city, it’s a holding pattern.

Here in Calgary, you are more likely to encounter a “So what?” than “Yes, but.” And that is the crux of these two opposing views. In Calgary, you get simple answers to complicated problems. In Montreal, you get complicated answers to simple ones. Neither approach is inherently superior; it depends entirely on what is being discussed.

The undeclared tug-of-war between Montreal and Calgary is only going to intensify.

So. Here’s what I suggest. Let’s work together. Let’s divvy things up, based not on ideology, but temperament. You be the heart, we’ll be the head. You can be from Venus, we’ll be from Mars. When there’s a problem that calls for hard-nosed logic—the sort of problem that can be solved with a calculator, say—we’ll take over. When long nights over coffee and cigarettes are called for, the field is yours.

Rather than slugging it out, let us embrace. Let’s make it not a boxing match, but a dance. A tango, perhaps, with its smouldering subtext and competing dance steps. A battle of wills set to music.

Consider this an invitation, then. The hand is extended. May we have this dance?




xoxo Guillaume