100 Years of Stampede: Calgary's Past as its Present

Official Logo of the Calgary Stampede
This year the Calgary Stampede celebrates it’s hundredth anniversary. For Canada, a country of only 145 years of age, this is a significant milestone. This is especially true considering Calgary was and for some still is the heart of Canada’s “Wild West”. Today Calgary is no longer that wild western outpost rather it is perhaps Canada’s richest city and the country’s 5th largest with a culturally and ethnically diverse well-educated population. However the legacy and history of the Stampede and the culture and imagery that it carries from past, when Calgary was a different place, continue to colour and mold the contemporary identity and culture of Calgary. Calgary’s population, economy, and urban environment are no longer representative of it’s past. Yet that past culture is carried in part by the Stampede and continues to characterise the present. Let me tell you about my visit and impressions of the Stampede. Yee haw!


Calgary Stampede from CNN
The Stampede was founded in 1912, modelled after other great fairs and rodeos taking place throughout the American West like “Frontier Days” at Cheyenne, Wyoming, the “Roping at El Paso” in New Mexico and “The Rodeo” at Los Angeles among others. When the Stampede began Calgary was a characteristic western boom town with the population growing from just over 6000 in 1902 to over 60,000 just 10 years later in 1912. The city was originally incorporated in 1884 the year after the important Canadian Pacific Railroad passed through Alberta on its mission to unify Canada coast to coast. Before the Turner Valley Oil Boom in 1914 the greater Calgary region’s economy was focused on grazing, agriculture, large ranching operations, cattle marketing and meatpacking industries and transportation and distribution as the railroad made it a regional hub. These economic activities, the coming of settlers, cowboys, the local Aboriginals and interactions between all these elements shaped and coloured local culture which is presented in the Stampede today. So in 1912 when Guy Weadick and H.C. McMullen established the Stampede it was 
Stampede thoroughfare: Personal Collection 
largely representative of the local population, economy and culture at that time. The Stampede consisted of activities and events concentrating on steer roping, bucking horse riding/bronco riding, fancy and trick horse riding, stagecoach racing, and Cowgirl, “Indian”, and wild horse relay races and the World’s Champion Ropers. Each day began with a parade of the participants, important figures and honoured guest throughout the city to the Stampede grounds. The Stampede also included exhibitions and information letting about Ranchers, Aboriginals, and The Royal Canadian Mountain Police, the Railroad and Cowboy culture. Examples of this are the “old time camp and trail tunes”, information about Aboriginal rituals and folk-art, cowboy vocabulary, biography’s of locally important figures like Father Lacombe who built the local Catholic Mission, and information about the “Pioneer Railroad” (Canadian Pacific Railroad). Over time the Stampede expanded to include a fairway packed with games, concessions, fare rides, concerts, acts, dances, ranching and agricultural exhibitions, raffles and rich purses for the rodeo competitions, taking on the character we see today.
Aboriginal Campsite: Personal Collection

What Does Stampede Mean?

The growing scope of the Stampede served to attract more competitors and rodeo spectators, but also widened the range of interest attracting observers beyond the scope of those innately interested or connected to the rodeo and ranching culture. By the 1960’s it was customary for the more that 500,000 annual Stampede goers regardless of their affiliation, or lack there of to dress in cowboy hats and boots. Fred Kennedy explains that the Stampede became a place where, “Bankers and Lawyers, Businessmen and Clerics, Cowboys and Cowgirls, Farmers and School Teachers, and Ranchers and visitors from every land join hands and dance (the Square Dance) in the true spirit of the last old great west.” My impression from the Stampede is that it is a place and time, once a year, where everyone in Calgary regardless of their roots, origins, and culture, could dress up and pretend to be a Cowboy or an “Indian”, and maybe rub shoulders with real Cowboys and (Aboriginals) Indians. At the same time it allows the attendees to participate in and observe the romanticised notions of the Wild West and all the characters that come with it. It does not mater that these “Cowboys for-a-day” drive to the Stampede in their Sports Cars, SUV or take the C-train, or that they work in shinny office towers, live in neat suburban subdivisions, or recently emigrated from Ontario, Chicago, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Germany, Mexico or Pakistan. For the duration of the Stampede they can partake in the Calgary of old and share in the same displays of culture that characterise Calgary’s past and the dwindling number of local to which the Stampede actually is reflective of.

At first this impression, which I concluded via attending the Stampede and reading about it, sounded comforting, inclusive and “Canadian”, but is it? In the rodeo of historical memory and story with respect to the Stampede one wonders if the song lyric “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” applies when considering the contributions of other groups to the popularised narrative of Calgary and the Wild West.
A view of the Saddledome: Google Image search

The memory of this old Calgary, partially carried through by yearly commemoration in the Stampede, is rife with representation throughout the city today, all year, not just during Stampede season. The depictions of the Cowboy and Indian theme have always stood out to me when I was/ am in Calgary. From the Saddle Dome Stadium, to the Roundup Convention Centre, and in the countless “Trails”(highways) named after First Nations Tribes like Crowchild Trail, Deerfoot Trail, and Blackfoot Trail. Even neighbourhoods are named in this tradition; The Mission located south of downtown is named after the Catholic mission that was founded in the 1870’s, and buttressed by Father Lacombe to guarantee a strong Catholic-French community and convert Aboriginals; Shaganappi, west of downtown, is named after the Cree word for rawhide lacing; or simply neighbourhoods like Silverado, and Saddle Ridge  among others. Meanwhile the city is sprinkled with statues and commemorations that are congruent to this theme and then there is the famous airport greeters decked out in cow gear during the summer months.

A Changing Calgary?

Despite this memory, popularised throughout the city, Calgary as a population is becoming less characteristic of it’s past, even though the whole city goes crazy for Stampede. The below chart shows that just half of the city is 3rd generation (10 points lower than the Alberta average) and no doubt far fewer are 4th and 5th generation. The number of new comers as a portion of the city’s population (and diversity) has probably increased further since 2006 when this statistic was processed as Alberta has experienced strong immigrant fuelled population growth in recent years. This attests that the collective memory is not simply a function of inter-generational transmission. However, that it is also carried by the popularised imagery and culture so characteristic of the mayhem that engulfs the city during Stampede, which is also sprinkled throughout the city’s infrastructure, facilities, and neighbourhoods, permanently.

Despite the 2006 statistics that 23.6% of Calgarians were born outside of Canada, and that about 12,000 new immigrants arrive in Calgary per year, and that 18% of the cities population speaks neither English nor French as their first language, the Wild West, Cowboy vs. Indian traditional Stampede narrative continues to dominate the historical memory of not just the Stampede but also Calgary. Is this because the power of the Cowboy vs. Indian theme to cross cultural differences? I think probably not!
John Ware and his Family: Glenbow Archives
What I can discern from visiting the Stampede and once living in Calgary is that the representation of the Stampede has not grown to be inclusive of the other cultures that also exist in Calgary. It is commonplace for a fifth or for that matter first generation Chinese-Canadian to dress up and wear a cowboy hat and boots and go to the Stampede.  However, the Calgary Stampede does not recognise nor popularise the role that Chinese immigrants had in building the west, whether that be as a railway worker, a laundrymen, a cook, a small businessman or in another capacities. While it was not until the 1970’s that wide interest in rancher John Ware, Alberta’s first black person and rodeo participant, was shown and not until 2012, 100 years after the Calgary Stampede was established, that his story and contribution to ranching in southern Alberta was popularised and honoured in a play. Furthermore the role of Aboriginals is presented in tired clichés with teepees, Bannock and dancing.

Aboriginal Campsite: Personal Collection
The Stampede has primarily evolved to showcase only one narrative of Calgary’s history, but in Canada we know others do exist. While not attempting to dive into the hopeless Edmonton vs. Calgary debate, when Edmonton city officials no longer felt that Klondike Days represented the city and the image officials wanted to present they changed the name to the Capital Ex. While this name, Capital Ex, lacks romanticised imagery, it is certainly more accurate and inclusive of Edmonton and its contemporary make up than Klondike Days. This is a defacto recognition that the identities, the history and thus in some way the make up of a specific place changes, and that identity can be flexible and molded to the new reality. Klondike Days became the Capital Ex and the personification of Klondike Days, Klondike Kate was retired in 2006. A similar shift has not occurred with the Calgary Stampede, or arguably even in it’s content.

What is the Stampede today?

Budweiser: The Wild West is Waiting... At the Stampede, Don't Forget your Cowboy Hat!: Personal Collection

"The Best City in the Best Country": Calgary Herald
Last year CNN named the Calgary Stampede the fifth best place in the world to “Party like a rock star”. When I visited Calgary during Stampede I was told all of the city’s quarters were empty, as the locals had descended upon the Stampede grounds to participate in the events. In the evening beer and moonshine flowed at Stampede themed concerts and events at local bars, restaurants and nightclubs, where everyone was clad in Cowboy hats, boots or some other Cowboy regalia. The women of Calgary dress up in outfits evoking the film Coyote Ugly, with cowboy hats, short shorts, and plenty of cleavage (I am not complaining), while the men were clad in plaid shirts, jeans and cowboy boots. Many local companies also partake by throwing Stampede themed barbecues and parties for there employees. As these are events often provide the chance for networking business socialising and flattering bosses and other employees it is important to participate with high spirits.

I enjoyed attending the Stampede but by dinnertime I had almost overdosed on Cowboys and Indians. Put simply the Stampede and the cultural experience that it invokes, which overwhelms Calgary, is an excuse to consume large amounts of alcohol, dress up as a cowboy or cowgirl, get off work early, attend parties on a Wednesday night, try to act rich, entitled and loud. I can only imagine how not sharing in this identity and not partaking in displays of Stampede regalia might cause a local to stand out among friends or work in Calgary’s “Group Think”. Everyone had a cowboy hat or some cowboy/ rancher gear even in areas far from the Stampede. On an interesting note I did not see any grown adults dressed up as Aboriginals, besides Aboriginals themselves.

Calgary Dream= New American Dream?:Pizam.com
The memory of history and culture exhibited by the Stampede creates rules for interaction, acceptance and “normalcy” for the citizens of Calgary in which they must conduct themselves in order to be part of the “Calgary Dream”. This history of the past and its representation do not correspond to the demographic and modern cultural make up of the city, but the narrative creates the medium in which the citizens must speak, understand and conform to so they can participate in “Calgary”. As all or most in the city must learn this narrative and conform to it, it drowns other narratives that contributed to the history of Calgary and it’s growth to the city’s present form. Indeed “this town (Calgary) is not big enough for another narrative….”

Who Cares?

Is this perhaps a sign of a shift towards a philosophy of assimilation over the cultural mosaic? If Canada prescribes to total identities and single dimensional memories like the Stampede it risks alienating large segments of the population who do not share this memory or truly care to partake in it. Propagating a memory like this may be easy in a place like Calgary, where there is more work that workers and money to be made so that outsiders have an incentive to comply with this memory. However, when work runs out, youth unemployment spikes, and when immigrants can’t find jobs how will the marginalised elements of Canada’s society who do not reflect nor share total narratives like this react to such “memories” of Canada? I am not suggesting that the Stampede marginalises people, but all encompassing cultural representations or manifestations can sometimes act as the proverbial fault line.

Update August 1st, 2012
Considering this perspective on the Stampede, what is your feedback regarding the recent contest for the renaming of the Capital Ex to the winning bid K-Days?


Calgary Health Authority:

Canadian Geographic:


Live in Calgary:

Our Future Our Past: The Alberta Heritage Digitalization Project, The Calgary Stampede Archives at the University of Calgary:


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  2. I really like the idea that thematic events can and should change with the times, though I doubt something as iconic as the Stampede ever will. I think people like to hold on to romanicized notions of the past, perhaps as a way of clinging to what they may think were "simpler" times or maybe because things like the Stampede have always just "been." I also like your observation that few adults want to dress as "Indians." Times do change, but I doubt something like the Stampede, steeped in the kind of tradition that it is, ever will. Society sees things like animal rights differntly, but the goals of these people will likely never be realized given the huge money-making machine that is the Stampede.

    (P.S. I think the Klondike has a looser connection to Edmonton's history than the Stampede does to Calgary. Seems like it was chosen as a theme for lack of anything better, but perhaps I'm just being cynical)

  3. I would have to agree with you about something that is as iconic and a marketing/ moneymaking machine as the Stampede not changing. The revenue and publicity that it raises combined, combined with the notion of something “constant” in a place like Calgary which is still a rapidly changing city is probably very attractive. It’s just too bad that in some respects it uses tired clichés, however, as the Stampede has been staged for 100 years to ever-increasing crowds I doubt this will change.

    In all honesty I feel Canada’s young age and nature of immigration make it difficult for society to blindly recognize Canada as a monolith due to the changing demographic realities. I am sure with time this will change however.

  4. From my experience with the Stampede and as you noted it does seem to reinforce some stereotypes about first nations people but not in any sort of malicious way and does offer a opportunity to expose people to the culture. Do you think that this is something that should be addresses?