MAYBE YOU’RE A “GOOD-TIME GIRL,” outgoing, fun to be around. Maybe you consider yourself “legendary.” You can be on your feet for twelve hours then yell out a spirited “Yahoo!” and pour a fourth shot of tequila down some dude’s throat at two o’clock in the afternoon. It’s probably in your arsenal to give a knowing glance to the man from out of town who remembers your name and came back to the Stampede this year just to see your pretty face. And you can smile nice, without a trace of sarcasm, when he calls you “Tits.” This is what a long-time bartender says it takes to work the Cowboys beer tent during the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
In Alberta, the reputation of Cowboys precedes itself, but in case you haven’t heard: Cowboys feels like a modern country saloon where debauchery lives behind swinging doors. It’s where Prince Harry spent a night on military leave and left a waitress internationally famous. It’s a bona fide institution, and you can tell from the overpass billboards and newspaper box ads calling you to “become part of the legend.” You enter the bar via a large casino that’s a little too bright; past the cowboy-hatted security guards and a swanky Asian-fusion grill. Behind a heavy black door, it’s like a smoky MuchMusic Video Dance Party that plays only pop-country music. At 9:30 on a Friday you will still find a group of older women line dancing, but they’ll leave soon.
Cowboys is the place to celebrate the spirit of the Calgary Stampede year-round. There is a sign on the wall proclaiming a night there to be “The most fun you can have with your boots on.” And the Cowboys women—the bartenders and bucket girls, the servers with bottles of vodka and tequila in their gun holsters—are part of the legend. There is modern-day myth surrounding their employment: does Paul Vickers, the owner of Cowboys’ parent company Penny Lane Entertainment, really pay for breast implants for his most loyal employees? “Just one,” he told the Calgary Herald. “She has to pay for the other one.”
Cowboys and Penny Lane have done such a good job aligning their brand with the Calgary Stampede that an outsider might not find it easy to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Indeed, the annual ten-day-long event is a circus of blurred boundaries. There’s the official Stampede, put on by the not-for-profit Calgary Stampede community organization. Then there’s the unofficial, overwhelming Stampede-as-public-performance, held in backyards and corporate-sponsored beer tents. This second Stampede thrives because of the psyches of its revelers, the city gearing up like you might before taking a trip to Las Vegas. Cowboys, in its new location right at the edge of the official Stampede grounds, has sidled up along the murky edge between the two, operating a tent just outside the exhibition grounds during the event.
For ten days in July every year, the Stampede consumes my city. A ten-minute walk east from my apartment lays the midway and the rodeo grounds, cupped from below by a curve in the Elbow River. There is the grandstand to the very south, huge agricultural and administrative buildings, fair grounds that are grey and quiet the rest of the year. This is the family affair, where you jump through hoops when you’re sixteen to work the front gates because that’s what your parents and cousins did. It’s the prerequisite stroll through the agricultural show and betting dimes on the chuck wagons with your grandmother.
Just beyond the official grounds, corporate-sponsored beer tents are hitched up in public parks throughout the downtown. This is Stampede as performance; here, convenient country struts through the city. There are haystacks from which a server might offer up a Jell-O shot on her chest. There is a uniform over those hazy days: jeans and button-down shirts for men, jean shorts or a skirt and a crop top for women, boots and hats for all. “Networking” during Stampede is how the city’s corporate workers blow off steam—it’s all but mandatory for most that they participate at beer tents and corporate events and cheer to the notes of “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” There are pancake breakfasts in business parking lots. Energy companies sponsor tents and get their engineers-in-training to blend up drinks. This is where you’ll find most of the women featured on a website called Stampede’s Hottest Girls. Party buses trawl up and down Macleod Trail, rocking side to side at red lights, transporting revelers between bars at regular intervals.
For the duration of Stampede, the city’s already-simmering frat culture is on display, given the permission it needs to shout loudly. The event’s identity is so linked to booze that it’s almost impossible to consider “doing Stampede” without a drink in hand. Last year, bars received special permission to start serving alcohol at 8 am. In an interview, the Stampede’s communications manager Kurt Kadatz says the organization “certainly embraces the party,” while acknowledging its status as a family event. What happens off the grounds, well, that’s not really the official Stampede and they can’t do much to control it.
Alberta has the highest proportion of working-aged men in the country. (A friend of mine was once at a party where she heard a young man shout “I love capitalism!” from a rooftop.) During Stampede season, the city feels as though it is ruled by frantic male heterosexuality, not least because it provides a yearly opportunity to act out the unbridled power dream of the rule-shucking Wild West that draws so many to our province. During the season, all facades that might shield unpopular thought are temporarily torn down. This party spirit has what at first glance looks like a fraught relationship with the politically correct, but it’s actually not fraught at all—it’s just non-existent. It is not the Western way to worry about saying the right thing at the expense of saying what you think, as loud as possible. As University of Calgary’s Aritha van Herk writes in her book, Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, “Albertans have never been quiet about their prejudices.”
One of the central tenants of Stampede season is regressive gender role-play. There is rampant catcalling and women are expected to relate in just the right way to their city boys in country clothes. “We all turn a bit of a blind eye to the Stampede,” says Jennifer Hamblin, a librarian and archivist at the Glenbow Museum and author of Calgary’s Stampede Queens.
During the 2014 event, over fifteen thousand people per day walked through the Cowboys beer tent. To keep them satisfied, Penny Lane hired an extra one thousand people. A lot of those people were women who come from out of town to compete for bartender and shot girl jobs. Penny Lane owner Vickers explained the appeal of a Stampede gig in the Herald last year: “They all want to meet a rich guy from Calgary now so the hot girls come because there’s all these rich guys making all this money,” he said. “It’s like a movie.” Kimberly Williams, a gender and women’s studies professor at Mount Royal University, has another term for it: sexualized labour.
IN 1912, American promoter and vaudeville performer Guy Weadick came to Calgary and saw an opportunity for an outdoor show among the dust and sprawl. He brought with him his wife, who went by the stage name Flores LaDue. She left her home in Minnesota to become a trick roper, which she did as her husband grew his event from small-town rodeo to large-scale annual performance with the help of wealthy ranchers now known as “the Big Four.”
The West attracted a lot of women who ran away from home. If you ventured this way you were placing yourself against the stodgy properness of an Eastern family. Out West, every body was essential—women were cutting cows and participating in roundup, and this gave them a certain kind of power. “There is a direct link between that and the suffrage movement,” says Christine Leppard, the Calgary Stampede’s historical specialist. “You see that developing in the West first.” Prairie women in Manitoba were the first to gain the right to vote, and women across the West soon followed, based in large part on the argument that they helped build and settle the land and therefore should have some say over what was done with it. Surviving in the frontier meant breaking down gender roles.
In the Stampede’s first year, women participated in trick roping (whirling a lasso like you might a ribbon in rhythmic gymnastics) and saddle bronc competitions, where you ride a horse that’s attempting to buck you off. They have also acted as outriders for chuck wagon drivers, riding alongside them during the race and steadying the horses before they take off. Women no longer compete in saddle bronc on rodeo circuits, and the Stampede notes that this is an international standard. Nowadays, women are seen most often as they ride in parades and excel at obstacle courses. “The love of a horse in a girl is strong,” says Janette Macmillan, the Stampede’s agriculture manager. The barrel racing competition, another obstacle course, is open only to women.
As Stampede has grown over the years, so has the number of events included. Part of the modern Stampede is the agricultural show; Macmillan says that at least 50 percent of the participants in the event’s horse show are female. Last year, a seventeen-year-old girl was awarded the prize for overall Grand Champion steer, which came with a $10,000 cheque.
But the Stampede’s public relationship with women is perhaps best considered through the changing roles of the Stampede Queen and Princesses. Together they’re known as the Royal Trio, and they follow a larger tradition of the rodeo queen—girls in shiny outfits who ride their horses in parades, attend events and pose for photos. When the Royal Trio first began in the 1940s, it was a prize to be won. Girls from the area surrounding Calgary would sell raffle tickets for local charities, and the one who sold the most was crowned queen and had her runners-up. As they proved popular and started appearing at other functions throughout the year, the Stampede saw an opportunity for the group to become a public relations team for the city. They started traveling the country. The rules were strict: they couldn’t marry during their reign, they had to wear the outfits that were often sponsored for them and couldn’t be seen drinking or smoking. “They didn’t want scandals,” says Hamblin. “It was like reality TV, something that people wanted to be a part of.” When the girls made a four-week trip to New York, they were coached on how to turn down unwanted advances and, Hamblin says, to “keep their spurs in their hands during press box interviews just in case they ever needed to ward off an overly enthusiastic admirer.” They represent a Hollywood version of the cowgirl. “But the Stampede is a bit about that anyway,” says Hamblin. “That’s not a real cowboy, and it’s not really Western.” In the 1970s, the Stampede Queens’ Alumni took on the running of the Western Showcase, which began in the thirties as, essentially, a pie-making competition. They hosted fashion shows and cooking demonstrations under a pink tent.
Now, the group consists of the Queen, her two Princesses and the Indian Princess, who hails from one of the city’s surrounding First Nations. They’re chosen based on horsemanship skills and are put through public relations charm tests at social gatherings, wherein judges are secretly embedded amongst the guests. The group often accompanies Calgarian businesses on trade missions abroad. During theStampede, the women are flanked by female “companions.”
THERE ARE NO COMPANIONS on hand to help the women working the tents at Cowboys, just busy security guards. Chances are high that you’d fail at becoming a Cowboys girl. “There’s a lot of competition,” says Kourtney Krysta, twenty-six, who moved to Calgary when she was eighteen from the small northern Alberta town of Grande Prairie. She’s worked the most Stampedes of anyone at Cowboys—eight so far. If the Calgary Stampede is indeed the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, then for those ten days, as Penny Lane Vice President Scarlet Lee says, “they’ve got their costume and they’re going on a stage.”
In the lead-up to the Stampede, a Cowboys girl is going to the gym to look her best and she’s going to Costco to stock up on snacks. She is getting her hair dyed and getting herself waxed and she is getting a manicure and she might get a spray tan. She is not taking time off work (it acts as a sort of conditioning training) but she’s getting her apartment in order because she won’t be seeing it much. She’s sorting all her Tylenol and insoles and back heat pads into clear plastic bags so she can tote them onto the grounds. Maybe she’s getting a B12 jab right in the hip. She is going to go into the Cowboys venue downtown to pick up her uniform—a black tank top that’s low-cut and says Team Cowboys, or a long-sleeved t-shirt that looks about the same, a hooded sweatshirt for closing at night. She’ll wear either a full pair of jeans or a jean skirt. Krysta says of the waitresses, “We have come a long way. There used to be girls that would just wear bras, at least now we have standards.” She’ll grab her hat and pair of cowboy boots from the thousand lined up. Krysta’s days in the beer garden tent are what she deems a clusterfuck. “We call it eight-deep, so eight people waiting in line for ten hours straight.”
Krysta is the establishment’s longest-serving bartender, and she’s also studying public relations at Mount Royal University. Today, she is perched at a bar in the casino, drinking Pinot Grigio before her regular shift, long blonde hair and her low-cut tank top (Team Cowboys on the back) layered below a hoodie, her bartender make-up on. Before she arrived, a coworker offered me a drink and told me how Krysta had made her time at the club easier; they felt like a team during Stampede.
“This is bigger than Vegas,” says Krysta. “It takes a lot to work Stampede, because for ten hours you have people screaming at you and they don’t think I can hear what they’re saying across the bar but there are people just picking me apart. You have to be a tough girl. People try to break you down, push you to your limit.” She gets pickup notes pushed to her at the end of the night. A popular request is for a “hooter shooter,” wherein a girl pours a shot into a male customer’s mouth before wedging his face in her chest and giving it a shake, but this is no longer allowed. According to Krysta, it can become scary in the tent. She tells a story from 2014, when rowdy crowds jumped on top of the bar. Krysta and the other bartenders pulled up their bottles, grabbed their money and ducked down behind the bar as security stood on top of it to stop the crowd. On stage, a Cowboys girl is all smiles and Western hospitality, but “when I see girls crying in the bathroom, it’s because someone has knocked over their shot tray on purpose,” says Krysta. “And that’s all their money, gone.” Krysta does it because those ten days pay for her full tuition at Mount Royal University.
IN THOSE SAME MOUNT ROYAL HALLS, Kimberly Williams has been researching women, sex work and the Stampede. “They earn minimum wage and they are ensured tips by dressing as provocatively as they can,” Williams says. “It’s a form of sexualized labour.”
Last year, Elsbeth Mehrer, director of external relations at the YWCA of Calgary, maligned the Stampede as a “breeding ground for sexism” in the Huffington Post. She wrote that the YWCA “shake[s] our heads at the misogynist, sexually charged and often damaging attitudes and behaviours that accompany the season.
“With nary an image of women competing in barrel racing or girls mucking out 4-H stalls, we must be actively critical of myriad media images of young women in Daisy Duke cut-offs and leather bras,” she wrote.
Misogynistic “celebration,” obviously, doesn’t contain itself to Stampede season. This past spring, the Calgary Flames made the NHL playoffs. A stretch of downtown’s 17th Avenue turned into the “Red Mile,” with bars showing games and the street blocked off to traffic. Along with the revelry and the crowds came the chants—in 2004, it was “Shirts off for Kiprusoff” (then the team’s goalie), this time it was “Show your cans for Monahan.” News spread about men groping women on the street and female reporters were harassed during live hits on television. In short notice, #saferedmile took off on Twitter, with a group of women standing on 17th before a game in April holding signs that said “Consent is sexy” using the flaming “C” logo of the team.
The reaction from the Flames organization was quick. They released a statement saying they don’t condone “sexual harassment and intimidation of women during the festivities.”
“Everything about that statement was exactly what I think we wanted to hear as a society, and as a city we needed to hear,” says Kenna Burima, a local musician whose circles were active in the #saferedmile movement. “How hard would it be for the Stampede to say something like that?” Stampede communication manager Kadatz emailed me a statement, noting that there are strong safety policies on the grounds, “but I appreciate that this is a conversation about our citizens writ large across our city.
“The Calgary Stampede would clearly support any actions or conversations initiated by Calgarians, grassroots groups or social agencies regarding safety and safe spaces in our city—during Stampede or at any time of the year. Stampede is a time for celebration and inclusivity and when our city’s reputation as a warm, safe and welcoming city should be at its most powerful. We believe putting on a cowboy hat comes with an obligation to model the values our neighbors [sic] hold dear and a duty to treat others with respect.”
Erin Waite, who currently works as a director at a local non-profit agency, spent many years in a communications role at the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter, sitting on the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective roundtable. “One of the things that we wanted to do a couple of years in a row was get a campaign going before Stampede ... there’s no question there’s a high rate of bad behaviour that links to the Stampede,” she says. “The response from our own agencies to the campaign idea was that we couldn’t do it at risk of annoying those that make up the Stampede board and corporate Calgary because those are also the supporters of the agencies.”
Elsbeth Mehrer worries about her daughter seeing photos of Stampede season revelry on the front page of the Calgary Sun. “This projection of a consequence-free time during which boundaries and inhibitions melt on hot asphalt has larger implications for our culture and our city’s reputation.”
STAMPEDE SEASON can be a pain. Many Calgarians bemoan the traffic and the crowds, but you also face near constant intrusion. Last year, someone in a neighbouring apartment block held a party and hurled insults from his patio at girls on the street who wouldn’t look up when he asked. That same Stampede, one nighttime reveler dressed in a checked shirt and black cowboy hat trailed me along a path and into my building’s lobby before I shut a door in his face. The city has a chronic taxi shortage, meaning many women are left to walk home alone.
There are no hard and fast numbers that show a direct correlation between Stampede behaviour and an increase in actual sexual assault or harassment cases—the Calgary Police Service’s sex crimes division responded to my interview request by saying they are busier during Christmas than Stampede. But there are stories. During the Stampede in 2014, Burima’s Facebook wall was home to a thread with hundreds of comments from women detailing abuse: groping on public transit, being called a “slut” after turning down advances, men in cowboy hats saying, “it’s Stampede, what’s your problem?” Experts like the YWCA’s Mehrer, and Danielle Aubry at Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, say that low official numbers relate to the larger cultural reluctance of women to report being harassed. “We have so many victim-blaming messages,” says Aubry. “Women might assume that people are going to say, ‘What did you expect? You were drinking. What kind of jean skirt were you wearing?’ [Stampede] is mostly a breeding ground for sexual assault myths to come out.”
Juliet McIntosh* was at the Wildhorse Saloon tent for a networking event in 2014. Venturing through the crowd, which stretched the length of half a city block, to find a friend, McIntosh felt someone aggressively grab her ass. “I decided that I had to get out of the tent,” she says. As she approached an exit, the security team grabbed her arms and told her to leave via another route. “I said, ‘Someone just groped me and I need to get out of this place,’ ... they just didn’t care.” She waded through the jostling crowd to get out. “Of course there were no cabs,” she says. “But luckily I only live ten blocks away, so I walked.”
“At the least, it’s kind of annoying, at the most it’s kind of dangerous,” says Leonora Carrington* of her life during Stampede. Out with friends during the week, she has had men grab her around her waist and grope her from behind. “I really resent having to change my entire lifestyle to accommodate people who can’t sort themselves out and be proper human beings. But I’m more on my guard and ready with verbal comebacks. I wear shoes I can basically run in, if I have to ... something that’s more like armour than fashion.”
“I’m suggesting that there is a culture in the Stampede that makes violence against women acceptable and normal,” says Williams. In reporting this story, one former Cowboys shooter girl got in touch to let me know that she feels an article like this degrades the strength and confidence she gained while working in the Stampede tent. But in a city so often banking on our brand as a young, changing place, what do we lose during the Stampede? What do we lose when we stroll into the Cowboys tent under the words: “Through these doors walk the most beautiful women in Alberta?”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.