Black History Month: The legacy of Oliver Bowen, architect of Calgary's CTrain system

How civil engineer Oliver Bowen became the architect of Calgary's CTrain system.

CBC Calgary is highlighting the legacies of three Black Calgarians who shaped our city. This is the first.

The legacy of Oliver Bowen

4 months ago
Duration 1:01
How civil engineer Oliver Bowen become the architect of Calgary's CTrain system.

February is Black History Month, and we are recognizing it by celebrating the contributions that Black Canadians have made to Canada's history and culture. 

CBC Calgary is highlighting the legacies of three Black Calgarians who broke barriers, changed the city's history and influenced its present. Oliver Bowen is the first.

This story was originally published on Feb. 24, 2021.

Oliver Bowen was a civil engineer with the City of Calgary who would become the architect of Calgary's CTrain system.

He graduated from the University of Alberta in 1965, and moved to Calgary to work in the public transit department that same year — and that work would be groundbreaking, said Nicole Dodd.

Alongside Cindé Adgebesan and Pam Tzeng, Dodd is a founder of the AB Anti-Racism EDU Committee that campaigns for Black Canadian history and anti-racism coursework to be included in Alberta's K-12 curriculum.

Dodd said that with a $144-million budget and five-year timeline, Bowen was tasked with creating and building the CTrain — which he completed under-budget and with time to spare.

"Oliver Bowen is very inspirational, because he has had a lasting impact on the City of Calgary with the design and implementation of one of the largest infrastructure projects in the city," said Dodd.

"[And] his legacy, design and leadership are still benefiting Calgarians today."

Full of the dickens

Bowen was born in 1942 in Alberta's Amber Valley, which is about 170 kilometres north of Edmonton.

It was one of several communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan settled by Black people from Oklahoma, Texas and other southern states, who were looking for a life away from racial segregation and violence in the early 1900s. But they still faced pushback in Western Canada.

Peggy Brown, Oliver's cousin, lived a mile and a half from him. She remembers Oliver as funny, impish and well-liked; he delighted in driving too fast and cheating at board games, she said.

"[Oliver] was full of the dickens, he was always full of mischief," she said. "He had a little shy smile, a little grin, and you knew right away that he was up to something."

Bowen had a strong work ethic, however, and that dedication led to a quick professional ascent. 

'He was going to do it'

According to Brown, Bowen studied hard throughout university, and when he was offered a job with the City of Calgary before graduating in 1965, he would go on to work hard there, too.

Bowen began his career as the city's first special project engineer, where he was responsible for construction of major roads, Brown said. 

Oliver Bowen got a job with the City of Calgary right out of university. (Submitted by the Bowen family)

And he would be promoted many times until 1977, when he became the manager of light rail transportation construction and implementation. 

The division was responsible for designing and building Calgary's first light rail transit leg.

"[Oliver] had sort of an ability to figure out things … if a situation came up, he could think of how to manage it," Brown said.

"He just put his mind to it — that he could do it, and he was going to do it, as far as I know of, and it happened. But it was by no means easy."

The opportunity to shine

It was not easy, Brown said, because of how much work the role required. But there is a likelihood that Oliver faced other challenges, too. 

If Bowen experienced racism and discrimination, he did not discuss it with her directly — but Brown acknowledged it was commonplace.

"I would imagine he did, as we all did, once we left the farm and went into work," she said.

"We all had difficulties getting jobs, being promoted. Now, did he have that or not, I don't know, because he was promoted through the city quite rapidly, and did very well."

Dodd said Bowen was likely recognized by progressive administrators within the city for his sterling qualifications and his committed work ethic.

"Obviously, there was some visionary leadership who provided him the opportunity to shine," Dodd said.

Bowen's legacy

Bowen died in 2000. Nine years later, the City of Calgary paid tribute to the transportation pioneer by naming a light rail transit maintenance facility after him — the Oliver Bowen Light Rail Facility in the city's northeast.

But what he leaves behind goes even deeper than that, Brown and Dodd said.

"Black students, and specifically Black male students, are often funnelled into athletics, or into music," Dodd said.

"It's important for … all students, really, to be exposed to a historical figure such as Oliver Bowen, because he breaks those stereotypes."

Bowen, Dodd said, was involved in science, technology, engineering and math before it was called STEM. His accomplishments and legacy are lasting, still seen and used by Calgarians every day.

"For all students to recognize that Black achievement has many, many different outcomes, and it's not simply in entertainment or in sport, I think, is very important."

And as a Black man who was so influential in Calgary's history, and its present, Brown hopes Bowen serves as an inspiration.

"I'd think that [young Black people] would be encouraged to try, if they wanted to — in whatever field they wanted to work in. I think they would think of, well, 'Oliver made it back then, certainly, I can make it now,'" Brown said.

"So I think they would be encouraged, and think, well, they would pursue what they wanted to do, with Oliver in mind."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from Monty Kruger and The Canadian Press