7 things politicians said between pancakes at the Stampede

More than the horses are on parade: Stampede week is also schmooze week in Calgary, as a virtual wagon train of politicians and business leaders roll into cowtown for the boots, buckles and button-holing.

Weighing the messages behind the photo ops and meetings at this year's cowboy bash

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hands out pancakes at a Stampede breakfast in Calgary on Monday. Serving - and making the rounds - is a tradition for politicians and other high-profile leaders every year. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Stampede week is schmooze week in Calgary, as a parade of politicians and business leaders roll into cowtown decked out in cowboy hats, buckles and boots for otherwise unthinkable photo ops and seemingly endless breakfasts.

But the brash competitiveness and strategic positioning isn't limited to the chuckwagon track. The self-styled "greatest outdoor show on earth" puts on a fair showing of politics as well. There's a whole lot of PR packing in them thar pancakes.  

Here's a sample of who showed up and what they were laying out and pouring on (other than syrup):  

Stephen Harper

The prime minister's remarks at the annual Stampede barbecue in his riding were pretty boilerplate stuff about the Conservatives' record, last spring's budget and the strength of the Canadian economy in general. And yes, he took his turn flipping (but not flopping) the flapjacks on Monday morning.

But it was what he said at the opening ceremonies for the 100th anniversary of the rodeo that caused all the fuss.  

The event's founders "would be amazed to see that their Stampede has been part of giving birth to the greatest city in the greatest country in the world," Harper gushed.  

While some took this politically-useful bit of hyperbole as pretty standard fare for anyone — politician, rock star or travelling salesman — out to pump up a hometown crowd, others jumped on it as unseemly for a prime minister who represents the entire country and perhaps shouldn't be calling out his favourite town.  

Alison Redford

Alison Redford rode in her first Stampede parade as Alberta's premier this year. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The 2012 Stampede was Alison Redford's first outing in the saddle as Alberta's Premier, and not surprisingly her week's been jammed with meetings — including a private one with Harper, where they reportedly spoke about his trip to China earlier this year and their mutual interest in the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline projects.

But while her round-up of grip 'n grins included a herd of prominent visitors, the federal Opposition leader was conspicuously absent from her agenda.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has been critical of Alberta's oil industry, accusing it of hurting Canadian manufacturing by driving up the Canadian dollar in his now-infamous "Dutch disease" reference. He's also tackled petroleum producers for trying to pull a "con job" in promoting the safety of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"Nobody's asked me to meet with him and I'm quite busy Stampeding and speaking to Albertans about what matters to them," Redford said.

Gary Doer

Canada's ambassador in Washington was on Redford's agenda. Gary Doer turned up in Calgary to make his own rounds, mindful of the week's big story in the oil patch: Tuesday's damning report from the U.S. transportation safety board about Enbridge's negligence in dealing with a 2010 pipeline spill in Michigan.

Doer appeared to be bucking the trend in an interview with the Calgary Herald, wearing the hat of a big-league resource promoter in pointing out that a recent poll shows 60 per cent of Americans support approving TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline project.

"The public is supporting it," the ambassador said. "Energy security was not part of the debate, it was just . . . labour and Obama's party and environmentalists," he told the newspaper, touting the success of Canadian leaders like Redford in selling the pipeline's merits. 

Tom Mulcair

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Calgary is a 'wonderful, wonderful' place to be and 'really lucky' to have Naheed Nenshi as mayor. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

While many federal politicians wanted to be part of the parade right from opening day, Mulcair's visit to the Stampede — his first — didn't happen until Thursday. And while he took a pass on Redford, he did meet with Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, and sang the popular mayor's praises.

"Well, I've met [Nenshi] several times, I was here during the leadership campaign and we had a really good talk recently out in Saskatoon when he was out there for the Federation of Municipalities meetings," Mulcair told reporters Thursday afternoon.

"I think he's one of the most exciting politicians in Canada, frankly, at any level of government. Very engaging, great ideas and Calgary's really lucky to have someone of his calibre as mayor."

Mulcair also maintained his opposition to the Alberta-to-B.C. Northern Gateway pipeline project and defended his view on making sure the oil sands are sustainable under the principle of "polluter pays" — and that led a reporter to ask whether he shouldn't be wearing a black hat instead of his white hat.

"I hear Mr. Harper was the one wearing the black hat last week. I'm wearing a white hat because I'm told that's the tradition here in Calgary and it's fun to be here. I've got family here in Calgary, visiting with friends and family and enjoying the events. It's a wonderful, wonderful place to be and it is a great city."

At least Harper and Mulcair agree on one thing.

Bob Rae

Liberal leader Bob Rae hit the Stampede during its first weekend but then headed for Alberta's oilsands country to promote his party's inclusive debate on resource development. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae turned out for the early days of the Stampede, but beyond the usual pancake-flipping fundraising native to the event, he sent a calculated message with where he chose to go next: north, to Alberta's oilsands country for a tour and meetings with industry stakeholders.  

"Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair want Canadians to believe that developing the Alberta oil sands is an either-or proposition. That is patently false," read Rae's press release announcing his oilsands tour and the start of the party's "inclusive dialogue" on the issues the resource development raises.  

"The benefits for the country are tremendous in terms of manufacturing, the number of jobs, the number of contractors across the country, in Ontario and Quebec, who supply the extent of the work that is going on here," he told reporters after his tour on Tuesday.

"What disturbs me about Mr. Harper and his ministers is the speed with which they've attacked those people who've expressed concerns about where pipelines are going, the routes involved and the implications of those routes," Rae said.

Justin Trudeau

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau made several Stampede stops, but denied he was there for any pre-campaign leadership campaigning. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's perceived star power was put to good use at several Stampede functions this year, including a fundraiser in Calgary Centre on the eve of the event and the Liberal breakfast and fundraiser at the Calgary Zoo on Saturday morning.  

Trudeau sported a belt buckle he got during his first trip to the Stampede as a young boy with his then-prime minister father in 1978.  The nostalgia brought to mind an obvious (and this summer, inevitable) question to the Montreal MP: was he campaigning at the Stampede with an eye to being the next Trudeau to lead the Liberal party?  

"If you guys had been to see me at any other Stampede breakfasts over the years, I do the exact same thing, because for me someone who chooses to be a Liberal in Calgary isn't doing it because it makes them popular," he said.      

Elizabeth May

The Green Party's growing strength as Albertans' often second-choice federal party also drew Elizabeth May to last Friday's Stampede parade to meet some of her own supporters.

"[When] all party leaders come to Calgary for Stampede that's where you should be," May said.

with files from The Canadian Press and the CBC's Katy Anderson