Calgary: In search of a new identity

Calgary sociologist Harry Hiller on how our city is becoming some place new, and how you likely play a role.

An ‘Arriviste’ city: Younger, better educated and throwing off its agrarian roots

(LipBomb/Creative Commons)

What images come to mind when you think of Calgary? Cowtown? Stampede? Oil and gas? 

There are good reasons for these images to exist but if you want to understand contemporary Calgary, the most important image ought to be "population magnet".

This is the most important image because it reflects how this city has been transformed both within and without (inside and out?). 

If Calgary's history is imbedded in its role as a regional hinterland city providing support to the surrounding agricultural industry, that image is now predominantly part of its origin myth. How do we describe contemporary Calgary and its residents? 

A popular place

Who would have guessed that this land-locked interior city would be the most popular destination in Canada for people moving within the country? Who would have guessed that for most of the last 30 years, Calgary — and its sister city Edmonton — would have the highest growth rates of any metropolitan city in Canada?

Over the last 30 years, the population of Calgary has literally doubled from 650,000 to 1.25 million people. Furthermore, the Census Metropolitan Area that includes the city's satellite cities has also doubled to 1.5 million. Most of this explosive growth has come from migration — particularly from interprovincial migration that continues even into the economic recession. If you are going to move within Canada, Calgary became the destination of choice. And since 2006, international migration also became strong which has had a huge impact on the city.

The result of this migration is that Calgary has the smallest proportion of the population aged 65 years and older of any city in Canada, a very youthful labour force because it is people under 40 who are most likely to migrate, and it is also this group who are most likely to have children here meaning that the birth rate is strong and the number of children is increasing.

Statistics Canada has identified Calgary as perhaps the most unique city in North America because of the nature of this growth and its impact.

So, given this context, who is a Calgarian anyway? 

(Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Who's Calgarian?

Is it someone born here or someone who just lives here? Is it someone who comes here to make money and then moves on or goes back home? How is it possible to develop an urban sense of collective identity with this population of such diverse backgrounds, or is that a phenomenon of the past? 

For people who initially moved to Calgary from western rural locations, residents had something in common. But not any more. Is there anything that can draw residents together given our individuated lives and diverse places of origin? Some have claimed that it was the 2004 Stanley Cup run by the Calgary Flames that made people realize for the first time that this was their city.

Ten of thousands of hockey fans take over 17th avenue S.W. following a Calgary Flames playoff game in June, 2004. (Mike Sturk/Canadian Press)

But instead of such unifying events and activities, rapid growth is more likely to be viewed as controversial because of pressures created by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, crowded schools, and medical waiting lists. 

Seeking to accommodate, absorb, and integrate many people getting settled with each new wave of in-migration is a substantial challenge. Long-time residents see these increases in population as an intrusion into their stable urban life. Yet, on the other hand, they cannot help but find something enthralling about being the center of such growth — particularly as a counterpoint to the city's backwater agrarian image. 

If hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics symbolized a city breaking out of its mould as a regional hinterland city and making a statement to the world, then becoming a "migration magnet" was also making a statement to the rest of Canada of the city's newfound role in the Canadian urban hierarchy which also instilled pride.

World figure skating champion Brian Orser carries the Canadian flag as he leads the Canadian Olympic team into McMahon Stadium in Calgary during the opening ceremony of the XV Olympic Winter Games on February 13, 1988. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Much attention is always given to the role which energy hydrocarbons have played in the growth of the city which cannot be denied. However, as a growing cosmopolitan city, its role as a financial center and distribution (logistics) center has supported a wider range of activities than before. 

Being the city in Canada with the second largest number of corporate head offices has supported retailing and per capita sales that is the highest in Canada. The type of labour force required in the city has resulted in the second highest education level of any city in Canada and its median family income is the highest among Canadian cities. 

(Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Another symbol of a new Calgary is the fact that the international airport is the third busiest in Canada. All of these indicators suggest that Calgary has broken out of its mould as a regional hinterland city.

The best way to describe this emergent city is as an arriviste city. 

An 'Arriviste' city

An arriviste city is a city that has broken out of its old mould and is becoming something new. 

It is still in process and has not arrived at an end state but what is significant is that it challenges the old urban hierarchy to which other Canadians have developed their stereotypes. 

If people in Toronto or Vancouver, for example, describe Calgary as "Cowtown," is this a reference to a stereotype that resists being broken, or, is it a reaction to the fact that this emergent city is in some way a threat to the urban hierarchy that they always knew. 

These are interesting questions given the fact that Calgary has been the population magnet for many of their own residents. 

But there is another side to this issue and that is how Calgarians understand themselves. 

Is rapid population growth and city size a badge of honour or does it signal the loss of community? There is no better symbol of the debate about this impact than the annual Calgary Stampede which to some represents a sense of history and community building amidst a diverse population with the multitude of pancake breakfasts throughout the city and the legion of eager volunteers involved in the city's life that create a sense of belonging. 

A new image

But others who do not share that history or who feel that the city has become something very different now in need of new images seek to distance themselves from what this event represents. 

These are all indicators of an arriviste city whose new population mix struggles to find an image that represents a city still in the search for a new identity. 

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Harry Hiller is an urban sociology professor at the University of Calgary. He's the director of cities and Olympics project at the school, and has written many articles and books on the effect of Games on different cities.