When you look at the Calgary skyline, it is a bit like looking at the future. There is a certain space age dynamism to the place. It seems like the city is pointed in one direction only and that is onward. Certainly, Calgary has a history of erasing its past. Calgary mayor Rod Sykes was notorious for tearing things down before they could ever get heritage designation.
Even their great celebration of their past – the Calgary Stampede – has been glossed up and made a modern interpretation of a traditional lifestyle. The cowboys there don’t look like the working hands you can still see in more rural parts of the province.
Yet, for all that, Calgary is a city utterly dependent on the past – not the recent past but the ancient past when plants and animals lived around an inland sea. Lived and died and eventually became coal and oil. Calgary now lives and dies on those ancient fossils, its economy spurting ahead or stagnating depending on the rise and fall of the price of oil.
Yet, the future is starting to grip this city. When I first moved there in 1991, there was hardly a brown face to be seen on the streets of Cowtown. Now it is, like most Canadian cities, growing more diverse. The majority of Calgarians probably weren’t born there or even in the province. Its powerhouse economy has long been an attraction to other Canadians and Americans, too. A lot of families trace their roots to those who came up from the south in search of black gold. Now the same opportunities are drawing people from all over the world. And of course there is Mayor Nenshi – the first Muslim mayor of any major North American city. His dynamism and future thinking mark a new chapter in the history of Calgary.
But now Calgary’s future is finally reconnecting with its past. The recent election of NDP members of the legislature in the heart of the city is not a shocking departure from the city’s roots but a return to its origins. Frank Scott convened the first meetings that lead to the formation of the CCF – the precursor to the NDP – in Calgary in the decade before oil began to change everything. Those meetings eventually culminated in the writing of the Regina Manifesto, which is why everyone now thinks social democracy began farther east than it did.
And then there are the coal mines of western Alberta was a hotbed for the International Workers of the World; the Wobblies as they were called were the most radical union ever formed in North America, and though their movement was crushed and their leaders murdered by the forces of the law, the company police and the Pinkertons, their legacy lived on. The more moderate trade union movement owes its existence to the fear generated by their Marxist counterparts as corporate America decided it was better to deal with the AFL-CIO than to face the wrath of a working class enraged.
The wheel of time never stops. I wonder what the next turn will bring.
But that’s ten minutes.