My first Calgary Stampede as a broadcaster was in 1985. This will be my 30th. I come back because I must.
I was raised up the road in Red Deer, Alta., the only child of Ron and Lila MacLean. Dad worked for 32 years in the military and then as a squad car dispatcher for the RCMP. Mom was a receptionist for MP Gordon Towers. We were not ranchers or farmers, so we were not representative of the Stampede. Or were we?
I believe that the Calgary Stampede, everything about its origins and its ethos, reflects a hope my parents held when they settled in Alberta in 1972, and it came to define my trail in life. It can be summarized in two words: openness and resourcefulness.
In 1912 Calgary already had a fair. The classy Calgary Exhibition was a festival built around agriculture. That year an American trick rider and roper, Guy Weadick, and his wife, Grace Bensell, brought in some of the best of the popular Wild West shows of the time and introduced a few rodeo events. Grace was raised on a Sioux reservation in Minnesota, and she and Guy were dedicated to making First Nations central to the celebration. That two Americans could be made welcome is just a start.
By 1923 it was obvious that the city of Calgary was beginning to lose interest in the whole thing. Too old fashioned, too rough for the increasingly sophisticated crowds. So Guy Weadick introduced two ideas which saved the Stampede. One was the chuck wagon race. Sure, that was also too rough, but it was darn hard to ignore. The other innovation? He conceived of the idea of having everyone in the city “go Western.” That simple notion to get us into Wranglers, buckles and Stetsons has never lost its charm.
I recall my first rodeo in ’85. A legendary photographer, Bob Morrison, came over to me in the infield. “Ron, Ed Whalen at CFAC-TV told me all about you. Ed said, ‘look after the kid' so I want to offer a little advice. Your blue jeans are way too short. Folks will call you “Flood” and you don’t want that.”
I was a little embarrassed of course, but I quickly ran to Daines Western Shop on the midway and nobody ever saw me hem and yeehaw again.
A festival for all
When the West was being settled, there was protocol when it came to names. You were never asked your name. Rather, the question was, “What shall we call you?” First names or nicknames only. People were judged by their present actions. Their past was their worry. The Calgary Stampede taught me to learn from the past, but not to dwell so much that it inhibited my ability to do good work now.
The Stampede, with its western wear, stripped citizens of any masks or ranks. It was a festival for all. I know that when I tried to compare the cowboys' results by framing the conversation around national identity, the cowboys didn’t like it. There was no such thing as an American or a Canadian cowboy. A cowboy was from someplace inside only. You could not be an immigrant at the rodeo or the rangeland derby.
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, and now retired Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, who is Jewish, are great ambassadors of this pluralism, and their way is the cowboy way.
A year ago, after the flood, a Stampede 101 seemed unlikely. But Bob Thompson, president and chairman of the Stampede Board, promised “Come Hell or High Water” to carry on. The volunteers and the corporate backers were inspiring. It was also typical.
Many people feel Alberta was lucky to inherit large oil and gas resources. But the truth is most of the pools were either small or technically complex, and it was the technical innovations of Alberta engineers, geologists and financiers that made it come about. Much of it would not have happened elsewhere.
The oil sands, the Northern Gateway pipeline, these are complicated issues. But in Alberta I place my absolute faith. Mayor Nenshi’s approach to government is to look beyond the culture of blame. His way is to avoid endless dithering on every issue, and to create civic engagement, and make a decision. That’s how we should be dealing with this on a national level. We need to move the way Alberta moves. Choose the highest standards, welcome the best from anywhere and avoid the temptation to just talk and talk.
I come back to the Stampede for the renewal. For the lessons of a time when there were no fences and survival was difficult, to watch two words in action. Openness and resourcefulness.