The Calgary Stampede’s vital cultural and political role explained, sort of …

Posted on July 12, 2016, 2:12 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: The Stampede chuckwagon races … exciting, but traditionally bad news for horses. Below: Stampede duds last year on Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair. Did last year’s effort work out as intended by the Stampede Board? 

The Calgary Stampede, according to our national broadcaster, is “a key cultural and political event in Alberta.”

Alas, it is hard to deny this claim.

TrudFor one thing, it is the weeklong annual festival at which office-bound politicians from all across this great land gather in the former Cowtown wearing outlandish cowboy hats while teetering on Cuban-heeled, pointy toed boots, with spurs a-jingling and dinner-plate-sized shiny buckles often obscured by expansive tummies.

These pale specimens are in Cowtown, officially, to pay obeisance to the manly arts of the Old West, such as cow poking. In reality, though, they are there to bow down before the oil and agri-business bazillionaires who sit on the Stampede Board, whence they offer a rotating sampling of the oligarchical power of Canada’s New West.

Normally speaking, what the Board says goes, both at the Stampede and in the city and province that host it. Although I suppose that is not an absolute certainty under the NDP, which must make everyone just the tiniest bit nervous this year.

Still, don’t get your hopes up too much.

HarpPoliticians who make the pilgrimage looking exquisitely uncomfortable atop a docile old nag or who put their 45.5-litre hat on backwards – hint, the little ribbon inside the hatband goes at the back – will be mocked, ruthlessly, by those who know better, and even some who don’t.

The events of the past couple of years, however, also suggest that there is a serious and competitive side to the political aspect of Stampeding, an indication that in this age of national advertising, the politician who looks the most fashionably butch in a white Resistol ™ hat made of Panama straw and the slimmest fitting jeans will soon be elected prime minister.

What’s delightful about this is that while they provide the lights, the platform, and the bad attitude, there’s precious little the Stampede Board and the other Calgary power brokers can do to determine which dude or dudette the unreliable voters of Toronto, Vancouver or Quebec City will decide looks the best in high heels and tight jeans and therefore deserves their support … and no matter what they think, it’s never going to be Stephen Harper!

Unfortunately, it is probably also true the Stampede is a key Alberta cultural event as well.

MulcIt is the culture of the event that likely explains the offensive posters that came to light last weekend – bespeaking an attitude about gender and status that, sad to say, is nothing new on the wrong side of the class divide of the Stampede Grounds, as everyone who has been there knows.

In defence of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” however, it’s unlikely anything quite that crass would have been officially endorsed by the Stampede.

Then there’s the perennial matter of animal cruelty, which is an officially approved  traditional Stampede specialty.

Still, the 2016 Stampede – or, as we used to call it when I was a humble cub reporter at the Calgary Herald, which covered the event like the morning dew, the Stoopede – had gone four days as of last night without a horse being killed in a so-called chuckwagon race. (By the way, they aren’t really chuckwagons.)

This seems little short of a miracle, but perhaps it really is the product of the enhanced safety measures the Stampede says it has put in place for the event this year. We shall see.

As has been said in this space before, horses die pointlessly most years for the entertainment of the humans who pack the Stampede grounds to witness the thundering excitement of the races. And, in truth, they are exciting.

Unlike other rodeo sports, which may be cruel in the sense they’re uncomfortable for the dumb beasts involved, chuckwagon races are particularly dangerous for horses because of the physical nature of the creatures themselves and the tactics used by wagon drivers to cut off competing rigs. The resulting spills are thrilling – and usually deadly for a few of the animals.

People who protest this are perennially dismissed as sissies and do-gooders. Professional chuckwagon racers inevitably say how very, very sad they are when a horse dies. The deaths are ignored by the Stampede’s organizers, and by pretty well everyone in political Alberta.

Lengthy commentaries that appear after a horse is put down typically explain that horses love to run, and if they could talk would surely tell us they’re good with the risk of being whipped around the track for the entertainment of the crowd. What’s more, there will also be some sharply angry comments about how the Stampede is all about the cowboy’s trade, it’s a vital part of our western culture, and people who don’t like it can go to blazes, yadda-yadda.

As has also been said here before, this is mostly baloney, particularly the bit about ropin’ and ridin’ having very much to do with the modern practice of agriculture.

Still, perhaps the placement of the infield barrels and firmer turf beside the inside rail really will make the chuckwagon races safer this time. One certainly hopes so.

Just remember that nothing is likely change no matter what because, regardless of who is in power in Edmonton, there aren’t very many politicians in Alberta inclined to stand up to the mighty Stampede Board.

And if we understand that, we begin to understand the truly intimate relationship of the Stampede to the politics and culture of Alberta.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

34 Comments to: The Calgary Stampede’s vital cultural and political role explained, sort of …

  1. Frazer

    July 12th, 2016

    Wow, you should try to express how much you hate Alberta a little more. Very subtle. Please let the vast majority of good people in Alberta enjoy something that, while you may dislike, has been part of the cities/provinces culture for 100+ years. Doesn’t mean I approve of everything that happens, but lets counterbalance the overwhelming negativity a bit.

    Reply
    • Adam

      July 12th, 2016

      David is an Albertan, and even if he were not he has every right to criticize the politicized celebration of what is substantialy an imaginary cowboy heritage.

      Reply
    • Athabascan

      July 12th, 2016

      What?

      So now the Calgary Stampede is Alberta? While it is true the spectacle takes place in a geographic location within Alberta, it is no more Alberta than say the Calgary Flames or Stampeders.

      Let’s face it the Stampede is a business pure and simple, just like other for profit spectacles that happen within our provincial borders.

      I don’t accept the notion that if you are critical of some aspects of the Stampede, or say the Calgary Flames getting a taxpayer funded arena, or that if you are not a fan of any of the professional businesses that operate in Alberta, that you are anti-Alberta. That’s simply nonsense.

      There is no more loyal and dedicated Albertan than Dave. He’s critical because he wants Alberta and its people to be better. When you care you speak up. Attacking those who aspire to make Alberta better is a Harpercon trick to quell the opinions and suggestions of others.

      Just because things have been done for decades doesn’t mean they can’t be improved upon. You equate the Stampede with culture? Are you kidding? It’s a business that a few elites benefit from. They want rubes like you to confuse it with culture and embrace it as if it were a provincial flag – smarten up and refuse to drink the kool-aid!

      Reply
    • Robert Gerard

      July 12th, 2016

      Or, Frazerr, you could go back to your annotated copy of the Collected Radio Speeches of Bible Bill and Parson Manning, Sr. and quit trolling sites you know well in advance will only make you upset. Climenhaga’s blog is so popular exactly because his subtle (mostly) digs at the unanswerable foreign oil interests and the unquestioning provincial rubes they have purchased (cheaply) to run the province in a foreign-oil-interest-friendly way for decades until Premier Notley sent most of the nodding prairie-billies packing in May 2015. Poking fun at CONservatives is precisely that — fun! And not least because of the way far-right head-pipes burst when they’re being mocked! I may be going out on a limb here, Fraz, but angry Albertans like you should spend less time worrying about what a progressive blogger has to say and a little more on what your angry, bitter, jealous comment says about you! Just a thought!

      Reply
    • Ward

      July 12th, 2016

      My grandmother attended one of the first Calgary Stampedes. At that event she saw a steer wrestler lose an eye when the animal’s horn struck him in the eye. She lived on a farm in Alberta until her late eighties, but she never attended another rodeo.

      Reply
    • Visogoth

      July 13th, 2016

      Hey buddy, all is missin is the drawl

      Reply
    • Linda Marshall

      July 13th, 2016

      I’ve never worn a cowboy hat in my life, and I’m just as Albertan as those who do. Never voted Conservative, either.

      Alberta culture is what Albertans do – all of us, not just those who fit a manufactured stereotype.

      Reply
      • Bloozguy

        July 13th, 2016

        Alberta culture goes back to Newfoundland at Christmas 🙂

        Reply
  2. Sam Gunsch

    July 12th, 2016

    Again…Climenhaga missed the event/news…which would have brought some balance to this post.

    Calgary Stampede cowboy euthanized after chuckwagon race injury
    Saturday, 09 July 2016 00:00

    https://www.thebeaverton.com/national/item/2789-calgary-stampede-cowboy-euthanized-after-chuckwagon-race-injury

    CALGARY – Calgary Stampede employees were forced to put down a prize cowboy Friday night after he sustained a leg injury during a chuckwagon race.

    “I’m sure all those human rights advocates are gonna be screaming their heads off at their Toronto Human Rights Watch meetings when they hear about Sid. But honestly? Most of these cowboys are older men with nothing better to do,” explained Nugget. “They would have been killed years before in a bull riding accident or had a cow tip over on them if they hadn’t been selected to be chuckwagon drivers.”

    Reply
  3. Sam Gunsch

    July 12th, 2016

    How it went down. Humane #yyc:

    ‘After limping off the track, the frightened rider was cornered by race officials and a doctor, who evaluated the injury and quickly decided that his racing career was over. Surrounding Sid with white sheets to prevent onlookers from witnessing the end of life procedure, the doctor administered a lethal injection.’

    https://www.thebeaverton.com/national/item/2789-calgary-stampede-cowboy-euthanized-after-chuckwagon-race-injury

    I mean, is that a glorious life ending procedure or what?

    Reply
    • Filostrato

      July 12th, 2016

      Darn! You beat me to it! That’s about the only thing that made me laugh about the Stampede.

      Reply
  4. Expat Albertan

    July 12th, 2016

    With regard to those Stampede posters, yes, the one with the woman’s pants around her ankles made me uneasy. On the other hand, the pictures of the dudes shows just how open Stampede has become to our gay friends, which surely is a sign of progress.

    Reply
    • Blossom

      July 12th, 2016

      The combination of alcohol, class and sexual objectification embodied in these posters is harmful and potentially deadly. The creators of the posters, and the beer company for which they labored, clearly understood this. It hardly matters if the objectified victims are young men or young women.

      Reply
  5. Adam

    July 12th, 2016

    A) A few thoughts. Journalistic coverage of the Calgary Stampede jumped the shark on a rutting bull when, in the discussion of politician’s stampede fashion, Ed Stelmach, an actual rancher, was criticized for failing to understand the basics of cowboy dress. On the whole, I thought he did quite well, wearing rough and unfashionable work clothes which he might actually have used on a ranch, but the coverage (“oh my goodness, we just don’t get what he is doing with that shirt? Is he supposed to be a lumberjack?) was a nice reminder that what is represented at the stampede is not actually cowboys but hollywood representations of them).

    B) I knew the late Francis Winspear somewhat, and members of his family quite well. I dont think that I am telling tales out of school if I say that according to one of his family members (also, sadly, returned to the cosmos), he was most critical of the stampede, thinking that it was reinforcing an unjust stereotype that Alberta and Calgary were trying to escape. So there is one plutocrat who, for a while at least, was not an enthusiast.

    C) I refer, as I did once before, to the simple fact that, following LG Thomas, the early European settlers of Southern Alberta that the Stampede claims to celebrate were not rough-and-ready cowboys chewing on prarie oysters as the built their houses from bison bones, but people from Ontario and the British Isles who came by train, brought capital that they kept in Nova Scotian banks, and who could order the luxuries of life to be delivered by train. Of course, they also hired agricultural labourers who had a tougher life but were not independent free spirits singing “home on the range” but wage labourers.

    D) This is what I think every time that Presto Manning and his ilk wax poetic on the special Albertan thusness containec in the stampede. Sorry, Presto, but Ontarians know as much, and as little, about Hollywood cowbots as do Albertans!

    Reply
  6. ronmac

    July 12th, 2016

    When Stampede rolls around and politicians start donning cowboy hats I get extemely nervous Why? Two words: South Sudan. Let me explain.

    A few years ago South Sudan (with heavy western backing) was fighting to gain its independence from Sudan It was a cause celebre for awhile. George Clooney was said to have his own private satellite to keep track of the place.

    Anyways, when the South Sudanese finally won the day and its newly minted leadership was unveiled before the world they were all wearing dark cowboy hats. (google South Sudan politicians and see what I mean).

    Hmm, I remember thinking at the time. Are cowboy hats part of the local native custom? Or were they being packaged by outside PR firms to project a folksy charm for western audience consuption?

    To make a long story short South Sudan has since descended into corruption and chaos, complete with waring factions.

    Just like the opposition parties in here Alberta. And just like Alberta South Sudan has oil so there’s lots to fight about.

    Am I saying Alberta is about to descend into violent political chaos? On most days I’m not. But until the last chuckwagon rolls back into the barn for another year and the politicians all put away their cowboy hats I’ll start breathing a little easier.

    Reply
  7. David

    July 12th, 2016

    It seems to be a go to event for politicians as part of their summer bbq circuit. I suppose it provides them an opportunity to mix and mingle with the Calgary business elite in a less formal and structured way and also can provide some good photo ops.

    However, anyone who comes from Toronto or Vancouver and spends a few days at the Stampede and thinks they understand Alberta would have a very incomplete and somewhat stereotypical understanding of our province, which perhaps explains some of the media coverage Alberta gets elsewhere. It is called the Calgary Stampede, not the Alberta Stampede for a reason, that should also be a good clue it does not necessarily represent Alberta as a whole. However, perhaps it is easier for some in the media to reinforce stereotypes and not challenge their readers or viewers perceptions.

    I think a big part of the appeal of the Stampede is a nostalgic image of a better, simpler time that probably didn’t actually quite exist as portrayed, but at least it gives Calgarians a chance to take a break, enjoy the summer and boost tourism to their city.

    Reply
  8. jerrymacgp

    July 12th, 2016

    All the media focuses on, is the Calgary Stampede. However, it seems as though every city, town and village in Alberta holds a rodeo & chuckwagon racing meet (for instance, this coming weekend is the 100th annual Teepee Creek Stampede, http://www.tpstampede.ca/, in a rural community a few dozen km north of Grande Prairie); but we never see any media coverage of animal welfare at those events. Are smaller rodeos safer for the animals, or is it just that Calgary’s is the biggest event and so gets all the coverage, both favourable and critical?

    As for me, the whole cowboy thing leaves me cold. I’ve lived here in northern Alberta for over 30 years, but I still refuse to call myself an Albertan, and it’s because I don’t get Alberta “culture” or drive a pickup truck or vote conservative.

    Reply
  9. Albertan

    July 12th, 2016

    At my Alberta place of employment the other day, we commented on how many of us Albertans do not attend the Calgary Stampede. Some felt it was too expensive, that they don’t do the rides anymore, don’t like the crowds, etc. We also find the attending of the politicians to be somewhat, or very, humourous.
    It reminds me of when we go to The Netherlands and visit places like the ‘Keukenhof’ (a fantastic, we think, large spring flower garden/park) or the ‘Muiderslot’ ( a fantastic, again, we think, medieval castle) and our family there, find it amusing. They never go to these places.

    Reply
  10. tom in Ontario

    July 12th, 2016

    In 2009 I attended a Stampede rodeo event, calf roping. Up to that time it was strictly the CBC version at night.

    The calf came barreling out of the chute, cowboy on horseback in hot pursuit. His lasso twirled and encircled the prey. He de-saddled, slammed the calf to the turf, wrapped rope around three legs (the calf’s not his own), smiled at the crowd and walked away. At once two sporty lads hustled from the sidelines to undo the sad creature.

    Missed on the telecast was what happened between tie-up and rescue. The camera focussed on the beaming cowpoke and his time, eleven seconds or whatever. What the TV didn’t show but what spectators in the stands could see was the agony the calf was going through. Since the rope connecting the saddle horn to the calf’s neck was taut and the horse was trained to keep it so, the steed would reverse up, dragging the poor thing along the ground by its neck until release.

    Reply
    • Maria

      July 12th, 2016

      I totally agree with your comment about the calf roping. I am an Albertan and I find the Stampede to be cruel and outdated spectacle for the benefit of business. Now if instead of roping calves, there could be politician roping, I would go to see that.

      Reply
    • Kang the barbarian

      July 12th, 2016

      In the 1970s those calves, after the rodeos, used to come into the local Auction Mart damaged and crippled. They sold for almost nothing since they had such a poor prognosis. Calf-roping is a disgusting abuse of an innocent creature. The results are hidden now.

      No real rancher would treat his animals like that. Corrals, squeeze chutes and tilting calf tables allow the animals be caught and treated without trauma if necessary. Even branding is going the way of the Do Do Neo-Con with the advent of cheap RFID tags and readers. This lady has popularized what every successful rancher has known for decades. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Grandin

      Only an oil-fueled acreage moron whoops and hollers at his cattle.

      Reply
      • Farmer B

        July 13th, 2016

        Kang, the majority of cattle are still branded for two reasons. If an animal is stolen an RFID tag can easily be changed, a brand cannot. Secondly the average RFID tag loss rate is 3 to 5%, retagging is required at time of sale. Branding has not gone the way of the “Do Do Neo-Con”. I would agree that cattle handling systems have improved over time. Have a good day:-)

        Reply
        • Kang the Barbarian

          July 13th, 2016

          Hot branding is so 1940s and you need ear tags if you are going to manage your herd unless you can remember each individual. Nuff said on that

          Reply
      • May Day

        July 19th, 2016

        You might be interested to know that these days, roping calves are the result of a careful breeding program, much like the bucking bulls and horses featured in the rodeo. The calves are worked prior to the rodeo to learn to run straight and are used at several rodeos after the Stampede throughout the season. Every calf is treated with the utmost respect. I’m not a roper, but I admire the skill of both the horse and rider to compete in this competition and safety for all involved is a top priority.

        Reply
  11. Filostrato

    July 12th, 2016

    Good article from a few days ago.

    Calgary Stampede: Torturing cows and horses is wrong, outdated and illegal
    CAMILLE LABCHUK

    “…[Y]ou can bet that if cats and dogs were subjected to rodeo practices simply for our amusement, animal cruelty charges would be laid without delay…Many questioners are demanding to know how the Stampede can justify the fear, injury, and death it inflicts on animals for the sake of entertainment…This strong public reaction is unsurprising, since a recent Insights West poll shows that nearly two-thirds of Canadians oppose rodeo events.”

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/calgary-stampede-torturing-cows-and-horses-is-wrong-outdated-and-illegal/article30788704/

    Reply
  12. Retlaw

    July 12th, 2016

    A “4.5 Litre Hat”? Must be a lot of pinheads attending…

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      July 12th, 2016

      Typo. Should read 45.5. For the reason you state, I’m tempted to leave it as it. FYI, I am reliably informed that a 10-gallon hat will in fact hold only about 3 cups of water, considerably less than 4.5 litres. DJC

      Reply
  13. 9 Sided

    July 12th, 2016

    My pet peeve is when the righties start slinging the notion that this somehow promotes the “cowboy values” of hard work and honesty. These fat businessmen in their cowboy costumes make more money on one transaction than a cowboy, or any wage earner, makes in a lifetime of toil. Not to mention how many of them I have witnessed trying to ply the office girls with booze at work functions. And 40 percent absenteeism during the week. Is that a cowboy value too?

    Reply
  14. Farmer B

    July 13th, 2016

    As a person who has farmed in Alberta for 35 years and who was born raised and educated on a farm in Alberta I have a little different perspective. Your assertion that roping and the use of horses to handle cattle in modern agriculture is certainly wrong. I have many friends who are talented enough to still do this on a regular basis. Rodeo is a sport that requires years of training of the rider and the horse. It is unfortunate that you don’t appreciate the work involved.

    As for you concern of give aways to the oil industry didn’t Premier Notley just announce new royalty incentives for the oil industry? With all the promises of job and industry diversification by the NDP the latest stats can report shows Alberta is still
    shedding jobs. Our government is also still depending on a return of higher oil prices and royalties to bring our budget closer to balance. Running the government is certainly different than
    being in opposition. Have a good day:-)

    Reply
    • Kang the barbarian

      July 13th, 2016

      You said it: rodeo is a sport. Rodeo calf roping is all about speed. On a real ranch if you are going to rope a calf, you sure do not jerk them by the neck. The whole goal is going slow and not hurting the calf.

      Rodeo just makes ranchers look cruel and indifferent when the reality is these humane handling systems and methods have been standard practice on most working ranches since my great grandfather’s time.

      Reply
  15. Expat Albertan

    July 13th, 2016

    That’s the difference between today’s conservatives (here and elsewhere) and others; the former seem to have lost any sense of pragmatism and are more apt to hold to rigid ideology that has proven not to work (trickle-down economic theory being the best example).

    Reply
  16. Sam Gunsch

    July 15th, 2016

    Heritage?

    http://www.nationalobserver.com/2016/07/15/news/every-summer-theres-chance-calgary-stampedes-chuckwagon-races-will-end-tragically

    excerpt: Western Heritage is the brand, and the rodeo is a big part of it.

    Executive Director of Animal Justice Canada Camille Labchuk disputes the notion that Chuckwagon races and other rodeo events are integral to Western Canadian heritage.

    She said Chuckwagon races were only introduced by the Stampede in 1923 as a form of entertainment. There was no history of chuckwagon racing prior to their introduction to the annual summer festival which attracts over a million guests from around the world every year and generate millions for the local economy — nearly a quarter of the way through the twentieth century.

    “Simply because we once used horses to get around, doesn’t mean we should engage in an annual spectacle of abuse to showcase that,” Labchuk said.

    Reply

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