PHOTOS: Former Calgary mayor Rod Sykes sometime during his heyday between 1969 and 1977 (Glenbow Museum photo). Below: The cover of Thin Power, How Former Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes Stamped His Brand on the City … And Scorched Some Sacred Cows, and its author, retired Alberta journalist Andy Marshall.

Rod Sykes was Mayor of Calgary from 1969 to 1977. Three consecutive terms is not a bad run for the chief magistrate of any big Canadian city.

During that time, through his remarkable force of personality, the one-time CPR real estate executive put in motion major projects that continue to benefit Alberta’s largest city, among them development of Calgary’s downtown convention centre and the city’s sprawling light-rail transit system.

Yet, as my friend and former Calgary Herald colleague Andy Marshall told me recently, one of the puzzles of the legacy of James Rodney Winter Sykes is that “there’s not even one pathetic street of drab, look-alike houses named after him. Not a cul-de-sac!

For heaven’s sake, he said, every year the University of Calgary “drags out C-grade personalities for an honorary degree, and Rod has never made the cut!”

Mr. Marshall, who served on Mayor Sykes’ staff for three years during a break in a long and productive career as an Alberta journalist and again for a short time during the former mayor’s short unhappy leadership of the Alberta Social Credit Party, set himself the task of remedying this situation in Thin Power, How Former Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes Stamped His Brand on the City … And Scorched Some Sacred Cows.

What began as an authorized biography of Mr. Sykes, however, didn’t make the cut with the former mayor, who at 87 is apparently as feisty as ever.

So while Mr. Marshall is clearly a Rod Sykes admirer – “I marvelled at the fearlessness, the unvarnished outrageousness of this ectomorphic oddball; not to mention his iron will to complete worthwhile projects,” writes the author in his book’s introduction – Thin Power was fated to be published without Mr. Sykes’ imprimatur.

Well, if readers will forgive my language, Mr. Sykes probably just pissed off too many powerful people, the sort of folks who don’t forget and whose connections run deep in a place like Calgary, which, as another former Alberta journalist of my acquaintance used to put it, “has all the vices of a small town and none of the graces.”

A beanpole, Mr. Sykes described himself with more than a little justice as “God’s gift to cartoonists.” He was a gift to old-style journalists too, since he was never afraid of a noisy public fight with anyone, including the most powerful members of Cowtown’s establishment – and that inevitably meant many of the people most municipal politicians are, with justice, terrified to cross.

Not Rod Sykes. The Chamber of Commerce, the almighty Stampede Board and the Calgary Herald, which in those long-gone days saw itself as the Newspaper of Record of Southern Alberta, all felt the sting of Mr. Sykes’ wrath. He once publicly described yet another of my former fellow Herald colleagues as a “chicken-shit operator,” prompting the paper’s headline writers to solemnly declare, “Mayor uses fowl language on reporter.”

It certainly didn’t hurt, Mr. Marshall suggests, that as an accountant by profession, the Montreal-born, Vancouver Island-raised mayor’s “hawk-eyed accountancy skills” enabled him to spot and root out the cozy financial relationships with government that can thrive in places like Calgary.

Mr. Sykes believed, and Mr. Marshall clearly agrees, that when he left office in 1977, “the city’s structure had been updated or plans were in place for their renewal and expansion over the next 20 years.” After that, as Mr. Sykes saw it, mayors like Ralph Klein and Al Duerr squandered what he had built by neglecting city services and allowing the mayor’s authority to be diluted to the point Mr. Klein, as premier, could declaw mayors’ powers in the revised Municipal Government Act of 1995. By the sound of Mr. Marshall’s description, though, Mr. Sykes has been characteristically none too impressed by any of the mayors that followed in his footsteps.

Despite his well-known (and not-quite-so-widely admired) refusal to suffer fools gladly, or at all, Mr. Sykes was able to build what Mr. Marshall calls “an amazingly broad coalition of support” that enabled him to overcome the opposition of his powerful and well-connected fellow citizens.

In this, Mr. Marshall told me in a recent note, Mr. Sykes’ appeal was in some ways not unlike that of Donald Trump, President-elect of the United States. “Rod Sykes obviously was far more intelligent, far more self-aware, understood the benefits of cultural diversity, was far more empathic, far less selfish, and he certainly was not a serial groper. But he did circumvent – or even write off – large sections of the population … and still maintain a solid core of support.”

“Rod Sykes was infinitely more intelligent, eloquent, empathic, truthful and balanced, but he may have shared a similar ruthlessness that we see becoming more of a norm today in public affairs,” Mr. Marshall added.

Mr. Sykes once explained his vehement and aggressive debating style with this strong metaphor: “When you have someone down, don’t walk away with them still breathing.”

“Being outspoken offends people unaccustomed to straight talk,” Mr. Marshall quotes Mr. Sykes as explaining. That may have been unusual in the Canadian politics of the 1970s, but, as Mr. Marshall observed, while it offended people, it did get things done. “I generally respected him for that ability to be a head-butter,” says the always mildly spoken Mr. Marshall. “Others certainly didn’t.”

Mr. Marshall’s book is the only biography of Rod Sykes to be published to date. To buy a copy, go to or Friesen Books.

Mr. Marshall will read from Thin Power next Monday, Nov. 28, at 7 p.m. at Calgary’s Owl’s Nest Books, 815A 49th Ave. S.W.

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  1. Back when newspapers were vibrant and eagerly readable, not the pasteurized milk toast auto bots that too many have hedged into… “He once publicly described yet another of my former fellow Herald colleagues as a “chicken-shit operator,” prompting the paper’s headline writers to solemnly declare, “Mayor uses fowl language on reporter.”

    Those were the days.

  2. I remeber how he got in a “dust-up” with the promoter of the travelling rock show, “Festival Express” because the promoter wouldn’t open the gates for free on the last day. Gee, I hope I’m remembering that correctly! LOL

    1. Yes, your memory is good. Rod got into a shouting match with the promoter, who took a swing at him and hit a garbage container instead.

  3. In 1973 my brother was at the U of C. The bus stop on the north side of the campus on 32nd ave. was a wind-blown nightmare. In October, he wrote a letter to city hall suggesting a bus shelter was needed. It took them three months to send an apologetic answer and by the following September there was a new bus shelter.

  4. re: ‘mayors like Ralph Klein and Al Duerr squandered’

    On his record, Klein should be a synonym in AB’s political thesuarus with squandered; just on his reduction of royalty rates alone, on oil/gas/tarsands, down from the rates that Lougheed established.

    Duerr’s record has to be judged by Calgarians.

    But the evidence is massive that Klein’s gang sold out Alberta’s farm, i.e. petro-resources, and thus created a legacy for AB of huge infrastructure deficits and structural deficits, which Stelmach made a good-faith effort to address, but who ultimately got politically assassinated for his defense of the public good vs. private interests by the petro-elite/petro-political class of Calg-Alberta. Danielle Smith was just their messenger.

    For political education purposes, today’s AB food banks should post a sign above their entrances: ‘This facility is brought to you by and sponsored by the petro-commodity authoritarians and market fundamentalists of Calg-Alberta’.


      excerpt: ‘In 2007, Alberta’s Royalty Review Panel revealed that approximately $8.6 billion in natural resource royalties owed to Albertans were not collected. This failure occured while Ed Stelmach and Lyle Oberg were sitting at the table in Ralph Klein’s Tory Cabinet.

      Albertans have been cheated in a big way and should be furious.’


      Just for old time’s sake, that’s merely one data point on the source of my angry attitude about how the PC’s, under Klein in particular, sold out Albertans and entrenched the capture of AB’s politics by the petro-class.

      1. One more… another commentator getting the squandered part right.

        How to Squander the Public Interest – Kevin Taft: Follow the Money (2012)

        excerpt: Corporate profits increased from 1989 to 2008 from 9.6% to 22.8% of provincial GDP. Alberta’s economy is first in the nation in capital intensity, but last in productivity of that capital.

        Profits in Alberta are twice those elsewhere in Canada and in the United States, but capital is only three-fifths as productive.

        Corporate profits derive preponderantly from petroleum wealth, that is, from the publicly owned oil and gas resources.

        In other words, public wealth consistently moves to private shareholders, frequently outside the province (for Alberta has no state-owned oil companies), as a consequence of the unusually generous provincial tax and royalty regimes.

        This is not in the public interest

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