For 10 days each July, the same joyful, unlikely thing happens: Over a million people converge on Calgary Stampede, many in cowboy disguise, in a tradition that's now been going on for 100 years.
They dizzy themselves on midway rides and inhale exotic food like bacon funnel cake and deep-fried Kool Aid, along with an estimated two million mini-doughnuts. They cheer cowboys who fight for some of the biggest prizes in professional rodeo. And since an estimated 70 per cent of Stampede-goers are locals, and thus voters, politicians of all stripes can be found flipping pancakes, however ineptly, at breakfasts across the city.
Out-of-towners might be surprised to learn that one of the best and largest Stampede breakfasts is hosted by the Ismaili community in the parking lot of their Calgary temple – over 5,000 people eating pancakes with east African bharazi (curried pigeon peas), while touring the temple and admiring the fanciful Ismaili parade float. Last year, Mayor Naheed Nenshi officially launched the event from atop the float, just before a posse of black-hatted cowboys offered free line-dancing lessons.
No one bothers calling it multiculturalism any more. Just as they don't boast about the fact that newer Canadians attend the Stampede at a higher rate than the rest of the population, with 29 per cent of Stampede midway-goers identifying themselves as visible minorities – like their mayor, who also knows his way around a horse.
At 100 years, the Stampede is clearly a hybrid – a collision of rural and urban, local and global, past and present.
Calgary is often stigmatized as having been a very young city for a very long time: a city unable to grow up, fixating on its imaginary cowboy past while tearing down historic landmarks, blowing up inner-city hospitals and hedging its future on non-renewable resources.
But that's only partly true, because Calgary is also a city that's long been coming of age – a complex, urban, power centre with an annual carnival whose estimated attendance exceeds both New Orleans's Mardi Gras and Nevada's desert gathering Burning Man.
And what happens at the Stampede doesn't just stay in Calgary. With the Alberta-centric Harper government in place, Canada's balance of trade, Pacific Rim relations, environmental policy, immigration policy and more are all affected by the city that goes Wild West each July.
When Mr. Harper travelled to China on a trade and tourism mission last February, it wasn't Quebec City's Bonhomme that he brought with him, but Harry the Horse, the Stampede mascot, and a passel of cowboys that urged the world's most populous country to visit Calgary this year for the Stampede's historic centennial.
It's not a question of whether you approve of the Stampede or like cowboy culture. The people wearing cowboy hats are the same ones changing the country – and so it's worth wondering what the whole thing means to them. It might not be what people think elsewhere.
Arriving from Ottawa in 1998, Vanessa Porteous admits she carried "all kinds of prejudices" about the Stampede. "But I like being in a city with a genuine carnival, a traditional carnival. I loved it when I figured out that the Stampede was kind of like [Toronto's] Caribana and Pride Day, all rolled up into one."
On one level, everything a newcomer like Ms. Porteous had heard about the Stampede is true: Yes, there are extravagant, debaucherous parties you won't get invited to. Yes, there are oddball German tourists dressed in frontier buckskin in the Indian Village. And yes, the whole city gets a little sluttier – including the menfolk, who teeter about tipsy on Coors Light in tight jeans and boots like Gene Autry in amateur drag.
What's not quite so factual is the central myth that the Stampede tries to sell.
"The Stampede isn't really a celebration of the cowboy past of the city," says Ms. Porteous, who is the artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects, the city's longest standing modern stage company. "It's a bacchanal. Nobody really cares about the past – [because] not many Calgarians have been here very long."
And that's the heart of the matter: Ever since Guy Weadick, an American showman, founded the Stampede in 1912, this invented tradition keeps re-inventing itself. Fueled by turn-of-the-century pulp fiction and live-action cowboy shows, the Stampede launched on a romantic notion about the closing of the Wild West and was embraced by an urban population unsure of their own future, most of whom had bet everything on their new city.
"With the huge influx of immigration, the myth of the West allowed people to interpret themselves in a new place," explains Brian Rusted, a University of Calgary professor and Stampede volunteer who has studied cowboy culture. "We used this identity to create some common ground."
In the decade before 1912, the population of Calgary had grown from 5,000 to 70,000. These were city dwellers, and their relationship to rodeo and cowboy culture was largely limited to the city's annual cowboy party. "The West was already over," says Prof. Rusted. "The majority of people in Calgary at that time didn't have any more connection to the old West than people do today."
The paradox is that this celebration of opportunity and new beginnings should be so backward-looking and one-dimensional. "Southern Alberta was far more than ranching," argues University of Calgary historian Max Foran. Yet Calgarians and their visitors chose to dress like Hollywood cowboys, not historically accurate farmers, Indian Agents or Chinese railway labourers – and "certainly there's nothing on coal mining."
"Cowboys and ranching are a far more attractive bit of history," says Prof. Foran. "If you put the white cowboy hat on the rancher, it looks much better than a hard hat."
Indeed, nearly anyone who's anyone in Canadian politics and business has worn the Stampede's symbolic white head gear, from oft-hatted Stephen Harper to royalty to titans of business and the newly minted Alberta premier Alison Redford, a red Tory with global aspirations.
But why does one of Canada's best-educated, most prosperous and fastest-growing cities continue to brand itself with cowboy slogans and cartoon versions of history?
Prof. Foran notes that there's a serendipitous continuity: "The oil and gas industry that supplanted the ranching industry as an economic force shares exactly the same philosophy: the great outdoors, risk taking, masculinity and a rugged, level playing field."
"If anything is true about Calgary in 2012, it's that we are a cliché generator," says Ms. Porteous. "There's a ton of self-rewarding going on about how we are coming of age, about how we're all entrepreneurs, no matter what our line of business. About how that cowboy spirit can be seen today in all of these manifestations."
She adds: "I think what is true, however, is that Calgary is surprising. It's not what you expect. And maybe it's more than you expect. More interesting than you expect."
The thing about the Stampede might be that it's the only collective yarn that seems to stick – just fake enough, just real enough, just goofy and interesting enough that it works for nearly anyone. It can pretty much mean whatever you want, whether that's a symbol of colonialism and the "borrowing" of First Nations land that helped make Alberta rich, or a drunken, 10-day bender, or a world-class cross-cultural carnival founded on community spirit. It's curiously inclusive.
Connecting with the Howdy Folk
Like many Calgarians, I cannot forget my first summer job at the Stampede, mopping floors in the cafeteria basement of the Big Four building: $6 an hour, tripping over spilled soft drinks, beer and vomit. It was fun being at the epicentre of the biggest party of the year, yet myself and the other teenage janitors knew that kids with better connections got to be Howdy Folk, greeting people at the Stampede park gates from around the world for nearly three times the pay.
That's the way it works here. If you network hard and hustle enough, you can triple your wages, and not be stuck in a basement somewhere. That's the Alberta dream.
And in that spirit, today's Stampede in some ways is comparable to a 21st-century barn raising: With only about 300 core staff, the Stampede's not-for-profit corporation marshals 2,400 volunteers, organized by volunteer committees year-round, and today all connected by mobile phones and social media.
Stampede President Michael Casey, a Calgary lawyer, says that few other major festivals in North America are so much the product of the community. "There are parties, functions, family events, year after year are based on the Stampede. You can't arrive in the city without knowing the Stampede is on. People decorate the streets. And companies take pride in having their employees be part of the Stampede as volunteers."
Mr. Casey estimates that he'll spend half his Stampede outside the grounds, talking to people at community breakfasts and corporate board meetings. In fact, many locals participate in Stampede events without ever setting foot on the midway. That's how embedded the event has become within the local landscape.
Businesses across Calgary rolled out citywide Stampede decorations weeks ahead of schedule this year. Infield rodeo seats have been sold out since last Christmas, and other tickets have been selling at record rates. That semi-official index of Calgary's prosperity, the annual "canvas auction," hit an all-time high this year, with over $4-million pledged by Calgary businesses to run logos on the sides of chuck wagons at the Stampede.
Admittedly, it's relatively easy to feel prosperous and optimistic in a province that sits on top of 180 billion barrels of oil, in a world facing a long-term energy shortage. But the success of the Stampede also has much to do with its connectivity.
"It's a huge networking festival, and corporate events are now a major fundraising source for many charities." says urbanist Richard White, former head of Calgary's downtown association. The urban-rural connection celebrated at the very first 1912 Stampede continues in the way networks that are rebuilt, year after year, during the Stampede. It's no coincidence, says Mr. White, that "our United Way campaign raises more money per capita than any other city."
Not that a lot of actual business gets done during the festivities, says Adam Legge, president and CEO of Calgary's Chamber of Commerce. "It's really about focusing on relationships. The festival itself is about how to nurture our dealings in a far more social way."
This connectivity is Calgary's secret weapon – the propensity of newcomers to forge links. This quality is arguably what Mr. Nenshi tapped into when he took his long shot mayoral campaign into the realm of neighbourhood coffee parties and Twitter. It's what launched the Calgary-based Reform Party in the 1980s, just as it once did the CCF-NDP, which held its first meeting in Calgary in 1932 – and both movements changed Canadian history.
Still, for all that it's networked and diversified – as volunteer committees have reached out to the city's varying communities – the Stampede still inevitably reflects power and privilege.
For many people here, whatever else the Stampede means, rodeo is the main event. And if you're lucky enough to grab a $300 infield seat directly overlooking the action, you'll experience it as a contact sport: daring, punishing, and potentially deadly to both rider and animal alike. Like Calgary itself, the rodeo is a gritty historical struggle for success and resources in a high-tech marketplace.
Yet looking around that infield, what you see is a sea of white faces. While the Ismaili Stampede breakfast may be Calgary's future, much of the Stampede represents a past that is not entirely distant yet.
Much of that goes back to the Stampede's sometimes complicated relationship with the Treaty 7 First Nations of southern Alberta.
"It's still a story about how our ancestors shared the land with the new settlers," says Dorothy First Rider, a senior researcher for the (Kainai) Blood Tribe. She notes the Stampede's tendency to showcase colourful powwows and teepees but not to honour the memories of great Indian rodeo champions like Tom Three Persons and Jim Gladstone. The Bloods recently made an official appeal to the Stampede to finally recognize Indian cowboys equally in its pantheon.
"You cannot have the West without both the cowboy and the Indian version of it," she says. "There have been a lot of challenges in that relationship over the years, and I think what has come out is a lot of competition between the two sides. And a lot of rodeo."
A down-home debate
If the Stampede is to have a bright future, it will be based on its ability to negotiate its own complexity.
This became clear earlier this month, when 550 people here attended a Walrus magazine debate on cowboy culture: Are Calgarians living in a post-yahoo information society that has outgrown its cowboy identity, they asked, or an eternal Cowtown whose Stampede includes everyone? It was a passionate debate.
"I don't know how much in Munich people over-analyze Oktoberfest," says Kris Demeanor, Calgary's poet laureate, reflecting on the debate and his own childhood memories of the Stampede when he dressed up like an Indian warrior. "It becomes an ordeal if you're not enjoying the Stampede with the wide-eyed joy of a child. It's the freedom that a giant, sanctioned party gives – even though, the rest of the year, Calgary is bizarrely conformist."
The debate and other local discussion seem to show that Calgary seems to have dropped some of its own storyline on the way to the Stampede: We're realizing that we're not necessarily who we thought we were.
"It's always okay to question, or even be a little insecure," says Mr. Demeanor. "What are we about, what are we trying to show the world, instead of being a one-note place? Because we are so many things, that's sometimes confusing for us."
This year, the Stampede expects to break all previous attendance records, and exceed 1.2 million fairground visitors. Whatever the story's really about, people still love the rodeo, the midway and the free breakfasts.
"I think what I'm observing is that people who are disenchanted are taking another look," says Deanne Carson, the Stampede's VP of marketing.
Ultimately, Ms. Carson muses, Calgary's cowboy-identity crisis enjoys a kind of timelessness. "The first Stampede was a goodbye to the Old West," she says. "The irony is that we're still asking some of those same questions, same themes. Will we be having the same conversation 100 years from now?"