Life has been pretty crazy this past week (it’s only Wednesday!) so this post is delayed.
I went to the Walrus Glenbow Debate at the Maxbell Theatre last Thursday. The topic was Calgary’s Cowboy Culture: Living Legacy or Just History?
Debating for Living Legacy was Joan Crockatt and Mercedes Stephenson.
(I didn’t know these ladies prior to this debate, so for your info – Crockatt is a political journalist and writer who appears regularly on CTV, CBC and Sun News. Stephenson is a national television reporter covering Parliament Hill for CTV)
Debating for Just History was Chris Turner and Chima Nkemdirim
(I knew these guys prior to this debate, but here’s info anyway – Turner is a bestselling author, and journalist whose article in the Walrus dealt with this debate topic. Nkemdirim was Nenshi’s campaign manager and is now his chief of staff.)
The debate was moderated by Carol Off – CBC’s host of As It Happens, and television and radio journalist.
Provacateurs were Aritha van Herk (author), Kris Demeanor (Calgary’s Poet Laureate), Terry Rock (CEO of CADA), and Deanne Carson (VP of Marketing and External Relations for the Calgary Stampede).
And then the debate was off…
The first thing I wished happened that didn’t was the Living Legacy team defining the terms of the debate and then, if the Just History team wanted to challenge those terms, they could have. A lot of the debate was centered over the definition of terms.
Crockett started by saying that Calgary has a culture and a brand that a lot of cities are trying to emulate. Our cowboy culture is something that differentiates us from other cities. She asserted it was something to make us different under our suits and then proceeded to take off her suit to reveal a cowboy outfit underneath. Actually. She argued that Calgary’s volunteerism is part of our cowboy culture and that we shouldn’t ditch that. That this makes us different from Toronto, that we aren’t gun totting, Sarah Palin supporters.
Turner was then up, and this blogger was grateful that he had an outline to his speech. He asserted that the Living Legacy team’s arguments were weak due to three things: they employed theatrics, they said things that were patently untrue about his wife and something else I don’t remember (I wrote ‘attack’ down, which isn’t really informative when writing this six days later). He argued that Calgary is ‘post yeehaw’ and that it’s just history. It is no longer relevant and is no longer accurate. In fact, it’s become a liability. He then listed a lot of the things going on in the city that makes cowboy culture no longer fit with the city. He mentioned the Peace Bridge, the Bow Building, Beakerhead, the Ballet (I’m unsure if the ‘B’ theme is intentional), the Opera, Old Puppet Theatre, One Yellow Rabbit. Cowboy Culture wasn’t good history to begin with. We don’t need the cowboy. (In hindsight, he didn’t actually have an outline, it was just three points as to why the other team was wrong!)
Stephenson then took to the mic. And I must say that she was the stronger speaker in this team. She asserted that the Just History team was defining cowboy culture wrong. She made the salient point that we can’t obtain our future by abandoning our past. That saying that you’ve outgrown your values is a false argument every time.
To which Nkemdirim (can we all just call him Chima?) argued that he wanted to clarify the definitions (that were never defined in the first place). Calgary values the Stampede and this debate was not about the Stampede. It’s about the cowboy defining the primary image of the city. He argued that the values that the Living Legacy team asserts we have are Canadian values. The cowboy culture limits the stories that we tell. The white hat and the cowboy reduces Calgary to a single image.
The provacateurs expanded the conversations with Van Herk asking if the rest of the country imposes this image onto us. Demeanor recited a poem and then asked his question which was something about the cowboy code. Rock brought up the point that his daughter doesn’t want to attend the rodeo because she feels it’s animal cruelty. And we can’t ignore that. Carson tried to make a point of having anyone in the audience stand if they had ever: attended a stampede, been to the stampede parade, been to a stampede breakfast etc. Which meant that she had the entire audience on their feet. Which she then tried to draw the argument that cowboy culture is a Living Legacy if so many people support it. To which Turner replied that he could get everyone to stand in the audience if he asked who has been stuck in traffic in Calgary.
Carol Off was a great host, funny and charming. The only thing was that she kept referring to the ladies as beautiful, bringing their looks to the forefront, which I didn’t think was necessary.
Stephenson was booed when she gave the argument that the Stampede has trained many artists throughout the years who contribute to our arts scene. Because that’s simply not true.
This debate was a great conversation starter, about a topic that is really relevant to our city. Here is a bias that I have. I don’t like the Stampede. In fact, if I didn’t have to be in the city, I wouldn’t be. Ironically, I organize one of the biggest breakfasts in the North West, so I can’t take off. I think it’s an excuse for Calgarians to behave badly in cowboy boots and hats and drink their faces off. I know plenty of people who really love the Stampede and that’s great. I just can’t get behind it.
Terry Rock asserts in his blog post that London, England does this thing called the big lunch, where everyone in the city is encouraged to have lunch in the street with their neighbours. And that’s what Stampede breakfast is about and other cities work for this level of neighbourliness (his word, not mine). I disagree. Stampede breakfasts may very well had been about that in the beginning, but now it’s about the free food. No one actually cares to meet their neighbours (and I’m talking about the really big Stampede breakfasts held by Stampede Caravan or politicians). Sure, Dr. Swann has supporters who come to his breakfast every year, but most of them come because its free breakfast.
I’ve never seen so many people flock to a tent in the middle of a parking lot to drink terrible beer and sit on bales of hay. All in the name of Stampede.
Is our cowboy culture a living legacy or just history? It’s probably a bit of both. I agree with the arguments made by Chima and Turner, we are tied to this image that it suppresses any other narrative that comes out of this city. It’s our only story. The only thing we’re about. We’re Calgary, the city that when you visit it, we put a cowboy hat on your head. And potentially get you to say ‘yahoo’.
But Stephenson’s remark about not obtaining our future by abandoning our past is a good one. I don’t think that even if Calgary wanted to abandon its past, it could. Even if I were to suggest that we abandon the Stampede, I would recognize the stupidity of that suggestion. The Stampede brings an influx of money and tourists with money to the city. Or even attracts a prince and princess. It doesn’t make economical or social sense to get rid of the Stampede. Because people who are new to the city feel included by the Stampede, and its valuable to have something that everyone can participate in. I just feel absolutely no desire to spend a lot of money on admission for the same thing every year.
A challenge of all three of my jobs is to get people out. Whether it be a political event, or a dance show, or to the theatre. And the Stampede can get 1500 people out to the kick off to the Stampede. Justin Bieber sells out in minutes. And I constantly hear that there is nothing going on in this city. It’s the challenge of promoting the arts, with no money for marketing. Is everything else that’s going on in this city overshadowed by the Stampede? I feel that it is. We have a thriving art scene, rich and diverse. We are city not without our challenges and growing pains, (transit, expensive city, growing suburbs) but we are diverse and moving forward.Trying to integrate bike lanes, trying to build communities. And our cowboy culture and the perception of that and the Stampede (as depicted by this old Gauntlet article) from within and outside is a black eye on our potential. Because we are a city that is WAY more than the just cowboys and rodeo.
Okay. Six days later. I’m sure there will be those who disagree with me.
Feel free to comment.