Calgary: A city full of tough souls

People are nervous, some are in despair and some are downright angry. Rev. John Pentland writes how this is a time when communities can splinter, and people can either turn from each other or to each other.

Calgary's got the determination to get through the trying times

Like the deep freezes that periodically hit our city, Calgary has seen economic downturns in the past. It's hard, but Calgary is a tough city. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The common phrase "when it's tough, the tough get going" speaks to Calgary, and it's something I've known for the past 24 years.

While the word tough can sometimes infer anger, bitterness or resentfulness, it can also reflect down right ugliness. We have seen this in acts of racism, demeaning graffiti and violent threats on our premier

This is deeply unfortunate. It speaks of a narrow few, and certainly not the majority.

I sense there is a toughness that is more about resiliency, maturity and hard work. Calgary has spunk.

This is a tough city.

The group of young Calgarians brought large hearts and messages of peace and understanding to commuters hours after the Tuscany LRT station was vandalized with hateful graffiti against Muslims, Syrians and refugees. (Evelyne Asseline/CBC)

Place of Ideas

Calgary is a pioneering city, a place of ideas, of vision and possibility. I often say, "This is the city of possibilities. If you live in Canada, and you have an idea, this is the place to fly them. This is the place to be." 

We are a people who are creative and adventurous. This recent downturn is met with people saying, "We have done this before and we will do it again."

Although I think this time may be different, I still believe it will make us even tougher. I don't mean "stiff upper lip" tough, I mean open and creative with a future-driven toughness to explore change and possibility. 

We saw this with the recent photo of major oil and gas folks on stage with the premier stepping into creative renewable energy possibilities — addressing climate change creatively and curiously.

We see this with our response to Syrian refugees in welcoming new Canadians, or the compassion and the generosity toward non-profits as they seek to raise funds in a time of scarcity. The generosity is humbling.

While there can be a fear and small mindedness, this city has always spoken of a bigger vision. We aren't stuck claiming "where we have come from," or entitlement like "who's your daddy." 

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips smiles at Premier Rachel Notley after unveiling Alberta's climate strategy in Edmonton on Nov. 22. (The Canadian Press)

We are a people who promote fresh starts and new ventures. For me it begins with looking with into our souls, both the individual and collective soul of the city.

Our soul work is practising a time of soul searching. It involves deep listening, a wrestling with questions like: 

  • "Who am I?
  • "What am I being called to do?"
  • "What matters most?"
  • "How then shall I live?" 
  • "What matters most?"

These kinds of questions deepen our purpose in the world. It becomes less about accomplishing something and more about being someone worthwhile in the world.


Our community at Hillhurst United begins each service with the reminder that we are loved, that we all make mistakes and yet we are forgiven. Full stop.

We are then invited to accept ourselves, our failures and mistakes as lessons for living wholeheartedly. This reminder invites us to receive a grace from beyond.

It moves us on and into the new day that has dawned.

The sun will continue shine, Calgary, as always. (CBC)

I believe this also welcomes us to a self love and a love for our neighbour that encourages a loving way to live in the city. It is a letting go of grasping and a welcoming of possibility. This is tough work.

It requires vulnerability, openness, courage and bravery to dare greatly. I see vulnerability as our greatest strength, not to pretend, but to be honest about our mistakes, to risk being wrong and to enter the arena of life.

Sure, there will be folks in the cheap seats who will dismiss or try to diminish us. But Calgary is a tough city where trying is rewarded.

Keeping soul

A long time ago a man said: "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?" This question invites a worthwhile reflection.

A truly whole person will be strong in their soul work. Trusting in their evolving purpose. Open and honest.

A truly great city will always maintain its soul even in tough times. It won't lose its soul when oil prices bottom out, or flee when the grass looks greener elsewhere.

Fans dance to the band Guantanamo Baywatch at Calgary's Palomino Club during the annual Sled Island Music and Arts festival. (Bobbi Barbarich)

When our souls are fed, nurtured and attended to, we are stronger and tougher through tough times. Soul work is tough work to do. It requires trusting and openness to the unexpected.

It requires a losing of one's self, to gain one's self. It is about deep listening. As we journey into 2016, perhaps this will be the "year of the soul."

A time to commit to the work of our souls, and the practices of soul making, so that we might truly know a deepen and lasting that matters in tough times.

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.


Rev. John Pentland

Hillhurst United Church

John Pentland has been the lead minister at Hillhurst since September 2005. He is married to Anna and together they have four children: Jesse, Josh, Allie and Charlotte.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?