How the Calgary Stampede became a polarized symbol of Alberta’s reopening

By Sammy Hudes July 9, 2021

As crowds adorned in boots and Stetsons affix their eyes to airborne pancakes this weekend, the near weightlessness of the traditional Calgary Stampede delicacy may mask the ideological load each flapjack flip actually carries.

Pancake breakfasts — a staple of any Calgary business, non-profit or political entity at this time of year — are back following a pandemic hiatus in 2020. So too are the loosely edible midway snacks — not to mention its musical lineups and calf-roping, saddle-broncing brands of entertainment.

The 2021 rendition of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth marks Canada’s first major event to take flight, at nearly full steam, since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down normal life 16 months ago. The century-old event has become the symbol of Alberta’s path to reopening, which entered its final leg on Canada Day.

But for the politicians promising better days ahead, today’s Stampede kickoff marks a far more meaningful milestone than any July 1 fireworks display or packed Commonwealth Stadium could. And it’s one that’s led to a political polarization surrounding the event that experts, critics and even organizers say is unprecedented.

Stampede interim CEO Dana Peers says this development has “surprised” him.

“I’ve never seen the Calgary Stampede perhaps be politicized the way it has been recently,” he says in an interview with AB Today. “But certainly, we know we play an important part in being an economic driver here in the province.”

For Premier Jason Kenney, who plans to participate in a drive-thru pancake breakfast with federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole tomorrow, then flip pancakes with UCP MLAs Monday at the traditional premier’s breakfast, the Stampede has been central to the “Open for Summer” rhetoric that surrounds the province’s relaunch.

The UCP government spent $60,000 to offer more than 630 Stampede prizes in its vaccine lottery — from rodeo and midway ride packages to Nashville North admissions — unlike on-the-house lotto prizes supplied by WestJet and Air Canada. Kenney even floated the idea of an onsite Covid vaccine clinic, a concept Peers says his team would be glad to make space for at the grounds.

“I fully anticipate we’ll have as much Stampede as the community can put on,” the premier said at his May 26 announcement of Alberta’s three-step plan, declaring the “cowboys are coming” and quipping he’d “love to be in the griddle rental business” these days.

A rodeo event during the 2019 Calgary Stampede.

A symbol of political ‘gain’ or ‘error’?
NDP Leader Rachel Notley didn’t try to hide her suspicions when Kenney took his familiar place at the podium to unveil his reopening plan, which saw Alberta become the first province to lift nearly all public health rules this month, including its provincewide mask mandate.

“I have questions about how the premier decided on this pace and whether it was informed by science, or simply by working backwards from the first day of the Calgary Stampede,” she said in late May.

Six weeks later, even the Opposition party plans to celebrate the festivities, with a series of community events throughout Calgary scheduled for the 10-day affair.

“Great to see the Alberta NDP dropping their opposition to the Calgary Stampede and joining-in on the fun!” Kenney retorted in a tweet.

But NDP MLAs won’t be venturing onto the grounds in an official capacity — something that Municipal Affairs critic Joe Ceci denies is aimed at making a political point.

“It’s just recognition that there will be many different things happening this year for Stampede that won’t look the same,” says Ceci, rejecting the suggestion it’s at all “rare” for his party to avoid the midway.

“I’m aware of the UCP saying that we were against Stampede and we wanted to shut it down. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t think we’ve ever politicized Stampede. We’ve politicized the need for the UCP to do more around Covid.”

But Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says volunteers who help run the annual fair and rodeo “are not particularly interested in being a political football.”

“Surely there are some folks who are trying to use the event for political gain or the opposite, as a symbol of political error,” Nenshi, who sits on the Stampede’s board of directors, told AB Today.

“I can absolutely tell you that I don’t know what the provincial government had in their minds, whether they were working backwards from the Stampede or not, but if they were, they didn’t talk to the Stampede about it.”

NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

Kenney seeking to ‘co-opt’ century-old fair: political scientist
Kenney is hardly the first politician to link the Stampede to a feeling of hope or renewal. At his first rodeo since becoming prime minister, a cowboy hat-clad Justin Trudeau reassured a friendly crowd in 2016 “you’re picking yourselves up again after a slump.” The 2018 edition symbolized Alberta’s “economic storms starting to pass,” then-premier Notley forecasted less than a year before the most recent provincial vote.

“I can’t think of a similar event nationally that is such a festival of retail politics, the making an appearance, shaking hands, engaging in that kind of one-on-one with supporters, whether it’s voters or potential donors,” says University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young. “It really is, in a normal year, an essential place for politicians to be seen.”

But the race to capitalize on Stampede for political gain has never been faster out of the gate than in 2021, according to Young, calling it a “flashpoint” for polarized debate, due in part to the “emphasis” Kenney has placed on the event being able to run, following its cancellation for the first time in a century last year.

“The response to Covid and to restrictions has become so politicized and so polarized at this point that people’s personal health decisions have almost become political decisions,” she says.

“The further right you are, the more likely you are to be a strong proponent of reopening and therefore likely to be putting your ‘Yahoo’ on. By the same token, the further left you are, the more cautious you’re likely to be. From the perspective of a non-trivial proportion of the population, the idea of Stampede isn’t just foolish. It’s aggravating.”

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt says the UCP’s attempts to make political hay out of the Stampede precede the lottery prizes and press conferences of recent weeks, recalling the white cowboy hat photo-op shared by Kenney and four other conservative premiers just two years ago.

Then in March, Calgary MLA Muhammad Yaseen introduced a private member’s bill to recognize rodeo — one of the marquee events of the festival — as Alberta’s official sport.

Bratt says there’s a clear desire by Kenney to reach out to his base, especially rural supporters, and rehabilitate the rugged, down-to-earth image that has been beaten down throughout the pandemic.

“If Kenney can successfully co-opt the Calgary Stampede and turn it into a symbol of the United Conservative Party, that would be remarkable,” Bratt says.

Kenney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment featuring a series of questions from AB Today.

The midway at the 2018 Calgary Stampede.

Stampede leadership pledges safe event, but attendance still expected to be light
While some fear the potential legacy of Stampede 2021 as a Covid superspreader, organizers vow heightened measures will be in place to ensure the utmost safety for guests.

“We’ve essentially been working with all three orders of government since October 2020 to think about what the restrictions might have looked like come July,” says Peers, noting safety precautions will go above mandated Alberta Health rules.

“Operating safely is our primary focus. The Calgary Stampede has always been one of those significant events, both here in the province, and really in Canada. Being sort of the first out of the chute, we have not taken that task lightly. We know the seriousness of it.”

Despite Kenney’s reassurances that Stampede could welcome a full capacity (the event set a new single-day attendance record in 2019 with 129,977 guests), Peers says the park will likely welcome just half of what a busy day typically looks like. The grounds have also been restructured to include 25 per cent more open space, with wider corridors. Guests are asked to pre-purchase admission to avoid crowded lines, and a digital queuing system will be in place at venues across the park.

Admission to Nashville North, the rowdy live music tent, will require proof of vaccination or a negative rapid Covid test. And while masking is merely recommended for visitors, all volunteers and staff (including those from outside Canada exempted from travel restrictions), are required to don face coverings.

A PR wager with long-term risks
Even as the risk posed by the Delta variant remains, Nenshi believes it’s unlikely, given those added efforts, that Stampede is remembered as a superspreader in months to come.

“But the challenge here is if we don’t get the timing exactly right — and unfortunately, the government of Alberta has not yet gotten the timing exactly right in terms of putting in and taking off restrictions,” Nenshi told AB Today.

“So I do worry that if we’re moving a little bit too quickly — you can’t run away from the forest fire when it looks like it’s out but there’s still some burning embers — it’ll flare up again.”

The mayor says it’s a PR wager that could leave the Stampede’s “long-term brand and reputation” at stake.

“I’m less concerned about the decisions that people are going to make this year, but about those long-term ramifications,” Nenshi says. “If people think that the city or the organization are reckless, they might reconsider [returning to the event in the future].’”

Emergency physician Dr. Joe Vipond, an organizer with Masks4Canada, says the greatest risk may not be at the grounds, but rather in the pubs and homes of Calgarians.

“We know that Stampede is a party time. There are essentially no restrictions on bars and restaurants,” Vipond says. “I worry that the people most likely to get together are also those at the highest risk,” pointing to youth aged 18 to 30 who may consider themselves “invincible.”

If asked for his medical advice on whether or not to take part in any Stampede festivities, Vipond says he would advise “that Stampede 2022 is looking mighty awesome.”

“It wouldn’t be the worst year to take a pass on this,” he says.

“My fear is that generally, over the history of humanity, hubris has not been well-reciprocated by karma. My fear is in the possible event that we do have that fourth wave that’s generated from this, it’s bad for Kenney, it’s bad for Albertans, it’s bad for the Stampede, it’s bad for our city. And I just don’t feel like the risks of hosting this event is outweighed by the benefits.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi rides a horse at the 2018 Calgary Stampede parade.

Economic factors weigh heavy as Kenney aims for ‘Covid win’
Three provinces to the east, the Canadian National Exhibition, which takes place the last three weeks before Labour Day, declared in the spring it would see its second straight cancellation. It’s a reality that means the Toronto fair could be at risk of permanent closure after more than 140 years, it says.

The Stampede, a non-profit organization, says it lost $26.5 million from having to forego last year’s festival and has essentially “been without revenue now for well over a year.” Had this year’s event been cancelled too (a decision opted for by Edmonton’s K-Days fair), “it would have continued to be challenging,” according to Peers.

Nenshi says that loss “would have been manageable in one way or the other” for the organization.

“However, the economic impact of the Stampede is much larger than the Stampede organization itself,” says the mayor. “So in terms of the restaurants, just generally the hotel, the hospitality industry. We’re not going to get all of that back this year.”

In a typical year, the Stampede’s year-round operations mean about $450 million to Calgary’s economy, around $540 million to the province and $700 million to Canada, per Peers.

Other financial challenges linger. Major sponsors have been less enthusiastic to tie their brands to the event this year, with those like Coca Cola pulling back their usual naming rights from popular venues. Others like Cervus Equipment have even discouraged their employees from attending.

The Stampede hasn’t received any additional funding from the UCP government on top of its vaccine lottery prize purchases in order to proceed, according to Peers, aside from its annual provincial operating grant (which was twice cut by the Kenney government after taking office). The Stampede also qualified for financial help from Alberta’s Stabilize Program, which provides one-time funding to support rodeos, sports, arts and other venue-based organizations impacted by the pandemic, and federal aid through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

For Kenney, the cost of foregoing Stampede 2021 goes far beyond the hits to Alberta’s long-beleaguered economy, which he hopes the festivities can help kickstart. It also supersedes the need to repair his own image, which has been at the mercy of caucus revolts and scorn from both sides of the political aisle over Covid restrictions.

Young says Kenney badly needs a Covid win — one that proves to Albertans the pandemic is over.

“For him, having the Stampede go ahead successfully, having it be this moment where we celebrate the end of Covid, is critically important,” the political scientist says. “What the premier has to hope for is that the naysayers don’t get to say, ‘ha, we were right all along’ if we do see a fourth wave of Covid. And that’s going to be the critical question.”

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