An Open Letter To The Calgary Stampede: Happy Birthday & Thanks For Betraying Us

6 Jul

The Calgary Stampede’s mandate is to preserve and promote Western Heritage and values. So why would they destroy Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood?

Victoria Park in 1910. (Ralph Dill, Glenbow Archives)

Dear Calgary Stampede,

Congratulations on turning 100. I feel privileged to have attended at least 20 of your birthdays. Here’s what I don’t quite understand: Less than a decade ago Victoria Park existed. Today it doesn’t. Calgary’s oldest neighourhood—how does it just vanish?

If I’m not mistaken, this neighbourhood was under your stewardship. As a premise, it still seems too good to be true: the great bastion of Victoria Park protected by the even greater bastion of the Calgary Stampede. I don’t know your exact mandate, but it’s not unreasonable to assume—to expect—that the Stampede and its thousands of volunteers exist to safeguard and maybe even nourish the deepest sewn seeds of Calgary’s heritage, character and identity. (The exact mandate is to preserve and promote Western Heritage and values.) So when you started handing out eviction notices to longtime Vic Park residents, I think most of us probably trusted that there was a pretty good reason. Even though you’d let the neighbourhood fall into disarray, somehow we still trusted you. But then you began demolishing the historic homes in this community. Wrecking balls and bulldozers. We thought that was a bit weird, but it’s THE CALGARY FRICKING STAMPEDE, who would have the audacity to argue?

In the next phase of  “the redevelopment,” you replaced this historic neighbourhood—not with a state of the art agriculture pavilion or a cowboy church or an urban farm that would be the envy of every urban farm in the world. Nothing holy. You built a casino. A gray concrete casino. (Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair, eh?) When it was finished, you changed the name of the historic Round Up centre to BMO something-or-rather. You excitedly announced the next step: Big Box “concepts” from the US (franchises like Margaritaville). This is on the ground that had been our heritage neighbourhood. I know you know that we don’t have many of those left in Calgary. In this interval of five years, you let our venerable horse racing operation disappear. At the annual exhibition—the greatest outdoor show on earth—you aggressively marketed American beer and whisky at the expense of locally made Wild Rose and Big Rock and Alberta Springs Rye, which is, dollar for dollar, the best rye in the world. Which is to say nothing for the beef that wasn’t Alberta beef. Not even Canadian beef. And even though the exhibition breaks attendance records and generates tens of millions of dollars annually, you got tens of millions of dollars from Canadian taxpayers to do all this. You got Government of Alberta grants. You’re sucking up millions of taxpayer dollars, millions more worth of volunteer hours, you’re annihilating any semblance of western character, and spitting out casinos and Margaritavilles.

I know this sort of deal takes on a life of its own. But imagine if the Vatican let Jimmy Buffet turn St. Peter’s Basilica into Margaritaville. Or if the Sistine Chapel was renamed the BMO Centre. You think the analogy’s preposterous. Because it would be inconceivable in Rome—that any of the world’s greatest cities would rip out their own guts—yet we didn’t think twice about it here. Our heritage is totally worthless? If the Stampede, so often likened to Calgary’s Vatican, is the one masterminding the assault on our history and character, how do our communities stand a chance?

This isn’t a vision of a city, but a version. A version of just another city in North America. I guess someone five years from now, or five years after that, will protect our heritage. But I guess you see the flaw in that approach to heritage too. I don’t think you consciously set out to destroy the heritage we trusted you to protect. In fact, I don’t even really know who “you” are. I know that stuff like this just somehow seems to happen. I guess I just want to know: how?

Anyway, congratulations again on your Centennial. Our centennial. I offer this modest toast:

 “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” (Joan Didion)



Exhibition grounds, Victoria Park, Calgary, Alberta (July 1909, Glenbow Archives)

Tipis at the first Calgary Exhibition & Stampede. (1912, Glenbow Archives)

13 Responses to “An Open Letter To The Calgary Stampede: Happy Birthday & Thanks For Betraying Us”

  1. Shelley December 6, 2013 at 8:03 pm #

    I grew up in Victoria Park. I lived there from 1965 until 1977.
    I remember all the houses like it was yesterday. Beautiful, majestic Victorians, full, lush yards, fences and just true beauty. We had a wonderful neighborhood back then. Family picnics, festivals, carnivals.
    We as kids played outside until at least 9pm, no worries or cares because we all knew each other no matter if you lived a block away from each other or next door.

    Had I known back then that all that beauty would be destroyed, I would have taken photos of every wonderful beautiful old house and cherished them….

  2. markwasheim July 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    I was back last year, just in time for the Royals visit. I was stunned that they still hadn’t managed to complete the Train system. That the stampede gets grants takes the cake. But then, that’s why I left after 11 years and the gradual destruction of infrastructure (hospitals in the core) and the simple ‘meanness’ of it all …. It’s so much more, ah, Canadian, here in Berlin :) Although, I do miss playing blackjack with the elderly Chinese ladies which was my way to pass the Stampede time!

    • veryethnic July 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      I forgot all about blackjack with the elderly Chinese ladies, who mumble little curses when you split your eights and screw up the rest of the table.

  3. David Lennam July 16, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    Bravo to the author. I moved from Calgary 25 years ago and The Stampede was a shitty version of itself even then — for all the sort of reasons that a quarter century would multiply. Hope some Calgarians (other than you and the comments leavers on this story) wake up soon and realize that the city itself is without a soul. Was when I left and I grew up there. No reason for it, either. Tons of money, lots of new inhabitants with new ideas and coming from cities that had souls. Oh, but is there any leadership other than business? Hmmmmm…

    • veryethnic July 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

      Thanks David. Am curious to hear where you moved and how people preserve heritage and community there.

      • David Lennam July 17, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

        Moved around in B.C. First Vancouver, then Kamloops, and, since 1993 to Victoria. Heritage preservation is a very strong suit here, but they still @#$%! it up all the time. Too many people speaking and not enough doing. The City of Victoria line is “Don’t touch anything more than 50 years old”. Developers aren’t too interested in that, save a few, who are into heritage conversions in their rush to build condos downtown. However, and maybe because we’re a smaller city and kind of isolated, there is a strong feeling of community. Everyone, it seems, who wants to get heard, gets heard — especially when it comes to heritage. But then, there is heritage here. In every home and building. Lots of century-old stuff in fine fettle.

  4. veryethnic July 16, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    How often do local country and western performers like Matt Masters or Corb Lund play the Stampede’s Coca-Cola stage? Dozens of such musicians like this play the the Calgary Folk Festival every year. And I know you can watch them from the Big Rock Beer Garden. (As opposed to a tent named after an American city…sponsored by a big American brewery.)

    Is it unreasonable to suggest that Folk Fest has surpassed the Stampede as Calgary’s quintessential community and heritage event?

  5. KARL KING July 16, 2012 at 1:31 am #

    I for one do totally agree with everyone’s voice here on this subject as it turns out the city of Calgary is the actual owners of the stampede grounds and are totally ruthless in their direction of possessions of taking over other people right to own their property without being harassed into giving it up for someone else’ s monetary purposes.I E. the city of Calgary with out so much as a proper payment of property.I was here in the early days of this great still a regular called cow town but now what is it to be your guess.

  6. Pippa Martin-St. Onge July 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    The Stampede and it’s board have nothing to do with “Western Heritage” . In recent years they have morphed into a Real Estate Development Firm that poses as a non-profit “Folksy” County Fair. All they are interested in are filling their pockets with cash, most of it which comes from the taxpayer in the form of Government grants. I would love to see them audited and their business ties investigated.

  7. Lisa Powell July 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    I have heard that the Stampede will be moving the Native tipi camp over to the Vic Park side. Not next year, but the year after. 101 years in a nice green space, headed for the tarmac, to wilt in the heat and buckskin clothing. Hide the Indians in the other corner, take over the nice shady green space. Ok, sounds like they got at least one part of Western Heritage down right.
    I miss the water park that they tore out to build the Saddledome. It was free with admission, fun, and cooled you down. I feel ripped off with the 100 year birthday. May I suggest a new trademark call? A big “Whoop-de-f@&king-do!

  8. Andrew July 7, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    A great representation of why a real Calgarian, a real Western Canadian, avoids the Shampede like the plague by holing up inside for two weeks, or leaves town completely.

    At one point, I’m sure it was great. I’ve been in Calgary 10 years now. On the two occasions I gave the place the benefit of the doubt, I thoroughly reconfirmed to myself that it’s nothing more than a mass marketing, money grubbing, capitalist zoo.

    The stampede has nothing left to offer of Heritage, Agriculture, or even decent social values.

    • Chris July 8, 2012 at 10:31 am #

      I love the community breakfasts every morning. I love the painted windows.I love dressing up and seeing kids wander around in straw hats with whistles tied to the end. I even love the parade and the fireworks and the fact that restaurants put testicles onto the menu. I love everything about the week, except what happens in and around the Stampede Grounds. As you approach and enter the park, the experience becomes more and more soulless. You can easily do the Stampede without going to the Stampede.

      • Jeremy Fokkens July 13, 2012 at 10:50 am #

        Chris I couldn’t agree more!!

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