Calgary is conservative all right but not the way you might think

Is Calgary conservative? It all depends on your definition. Politcal analyst Susan Elliott takes a hard look at our political stereotypes.

What's in a word? Everything when it comes to describing Calgary's conservative culture

Calgary has a knack for bringing people from different backgrounds together. Take, for example, Bret (The Hit Man) Hart and former Reformer Party leader Preston Manning at the Calgary Stampede in 2000. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

When I moved to Alberta in the early 1980s, friends were aghast. Why would I — a single young woman — choose a testosterone-charged cowboy culture undoubtedly hostile to who and what I was?

Well, it turns out Albertans didn't care if I were male or female, white or brown or blue with yellow dots. They didn't care who my daddy was or what neighbourhood I grew up in. They cared about what I could do: work hard and produce results.

I have prospered here and so have many others. So why is Calgary's identity so conservative?

Independent and opinionated

My theory is that most of us (or at least our parents or grandparents) came from somewhere else. We packed up everything we own and travelled thousands of kilometres to make a better home here.

We are entrepreneurial people judged by that action alone (I joke that the others just kept driving to B.C.).

Calgarians are equal parts independent and self-motivated with a dash of opinionated.

Naheed Nenshi, who has been known to share his opinion from time to time, became the first Muslim mayor in North America. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

The story of the Prairies is not just about mavericks, but people who depended on one another to prevail over harsh conditions. Community and family are also part of our culture.

These fiercely independent, self-motivated people will defend family and community as the building blocks of society. There's not a lot of room for the nanny state in that world view.

It's often called "Prairie populism".

Prior to the 2008 election, I led some deep-dive research into what Albertans believe. I suspected that we aren't who people assume we are — that people misinterpret what "conservative" culture means.

Well, blow my socks off!

Conservation conservatives

Sixty per cent of Calgarians said protecting the environment was more important than creating jobs. Only 10 per cent said global warming wasn't important. Conservatives believe in conservation.

Did anything about Alberta embarrass you? Yup, homelessness.

Nearly 90 per cent of Calgarians identified homelessness as a pressing social issue. That explains the tremendous community involvement in the 2008 Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which has provided 7,000 affordable homes so far.

Members of Calgary's Alpha House Encampment Team visit a comparatively well-kept homeless camp near a southeast Calgary industrial park, but the resident wasn't home. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Calgarians seem to get that it costs $34,000 less a year to help people who first have a roof over their heads! That's the Calgary conservative culture.

Further surprises: More Calgarians than any other Albertans (66 per cent) supported same-sex marriage back in 2008 when it was very controversial. That number is higher today.

Most interesting, no matter your personal position on tricky moral issues, only 18 per cent of Calgarians wanted governments to make those decisions on our behalf. That's a politically libertarian stance that tells government to "stay out of what doesn't concern you."

No surprise, the work ethic scored very high — nearly 75 per cent of Calgarians said there is something wrong with a person not willing to work hard.

Understand that when researching people's opinions, we speak in statistics: There are always individuals who feel differently. But with these dominantly conservative and libertarian values, why did Calgary elect 15 NDP MLAs last May? Are we really closet left-wingers cloaked in conservative language?

Closet left-wingers?

The 2015 election was about anger at the PC government. Albertans have customarily said that if a government "ain't broke, don't fix it." As entrepreneurs, we value stability and predictability. Changing governments for fun isn't in our playbook.

This time, voters decided it was broke and it did need fixing. But faced with the option of moving left or moving right, Albertans did not swing right.

The uber-conservative Wildrose Party won just four more seats than in 2012, and only one in Calgary. One might have expected conservatives to vote more conservatively. They didn't.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean climbs on top of his trailer outside Rimbey, Alta., during the last provincial election. (Chris Bolin/Wildrose Party )

Is it because the Wildrose makes Calgarians nervous on social issues?

In the 2012 election, voters backed away from Wildrose in part because leader Danielle Smith refused to disavow a candidate who alleged gays would burn in a lake of fire, and another who thought Caucasians make better MLAs. They won just two Calgary seats after that brouhaha.

Calgarians are more complex than our stereotype. We might sometimes seem a little rough around the edges, but we're just havin' fun. The Calgary Stampede is a great 10-day party, but it isn't how we live our daily lives.

We are hard workers to the core and expect others to be so, too. We are deeply accepting of the people in our community. We don't see much cause to get all hot-and-bothered about people who are on a different path, unless — and this is a big exception — someone is being harmed.

Exhibit A: The strong reaction to anti-refugee graffiti at a C-train station.

Calgarians firmly believe in a hand up rather than a hand out. And that hand is readily offered. We just want to know that you are going to work hard. Everything else is your business.

That's our conservative culture.

This group of young people responded immediately to the hateful graffiti scrawled across the Tuscany LRT station in Calgary by bringing messages of love to morning commuters. (Nahiyan Chowdhury)

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.