By James Keller
Calgary’s history is often difficult to define. Our past gets tangled up in cowboy imagery and tales of great pioneers, and we connect with that past in very peculiar ways. Culturally, we hold historic rituals like the Calgary Stampede, and erect monuments like Heritage Park. Officially, we welcome visitors with traditional white stetsons. And through the written word, we relive our past through historic texts and books that chronicle our roots in the Wild West. Our history, at least our popular history, seems linear and unified.
However, this isn’t because Calgary is without diversity, nor is it because our heritage is devoid of intrigue. Quite the contrary, Calgary is a city with a colourful past–one that is too quickly forgotten in favour of the chuckwagon races. Nowhere is this phenomenon more clear than in popular literature. History books are aimed to either reinforce or shift away from tradition–to trace over the image of the Calgarian or erase it and start anew.
According to Dr. Ronald Glasberg, a Communication and Culture professor at the University of Calgary, we define both our history and ourselves through the images we produce. He points to a staple at the Glenbow Museum to illustrate this point, a painting depicting the founding of Calgary. The work portrays a group of Royal Canadian Mounted Police emerging from the Bow River to build a palisade, which would become Fort Calgary.
“It’s the idea of people coming from a great distance across a water, coming on the land, and in this case, the founding order was rooted in force,” Glasberg says, pointing to the Mounties as an image of power. “That’s the rooting principle in most Canadian history, and it’s shown unconsciously.”
The opposite of order and control in most local and national histories is embodied in images of chaos. For Calgary, this is embodied by the Calgary Stampede, a yearly festival that projects an image that is anything but controlled. The clash of these two paradigms shapes our image of ourselves, and reciprocally, how we produce that image.
“It’s unconscious. I don’t think we seek it out,” Glasberg explains. “People look for those events that reflect those tensions between order and chaos.”
Glasberg points out the tension between the two extremes is found largely in popular history, and there is a clear distinction between popular historical representation and its academic equivalent, which looks for historical fact and seeks out causal relationships instead.
This phenomenon is easily recognizable in everything from books to newspaper articles. While local tension against authority is apparent in the evolution of any urban centre, Calgary’s battle with Eastern Canada, the federal government and even Edmonton can be seen early on. In the Sept. 3, 1955 edition of the Calgary Herald, a special supplement celebrating Alberta’s jubilee looked back at Alberta’s 50 years in confederation.
While stories focused largely on the province’s (and consequently Calgary’s) successes, those stories were juxtaposed with accounts of friction.
Amidst stories of celebration and triumph, battles were fought in the headlines. “Provincial Status Arrived After Years of Agitation, Federal Government Caused Long Delays” and “The West Had to Fight for Responsible Government” show early anti-federal trends that are even stronger today. Also, “Calgary Claims Ignored” reminds us of unofficial rivalries between ourselves and Edmonton, as we battled and lost, in 1905 to become the province’s capital. Even something as simple as the origin of the city’s name can be thrown into conflict. A story headlined “Origin of Calgary Causes Controversy” outlines the conflicts of the city’s naming.
However, even in representations of conflict, we are still very specific. In these articles, as well as those in more modern artifacts of popular history like The Unknown City series, conflict is often restricted to the political or otherwise benign realms. Feuding municipalities and urban riots present our history in a certain way, and heated conflict is definitely visible. However, popular history tends to ignore the dark conflict, battles we lost or that we may not be proud of. This separates popular history from the academic.
“[Popular history] seems very caught up in symbols; it is not really academic history which tells the story of the forces that led to the creation of the city. Some of those might be embarrassing,” says Glasberg. “We’re not all angels and we didn’t come here with good intentions. If the city was founded on the principles of utter generosity and humanitarian love, it would be great. But it wasn’t.”
This dark history is not only absent from most popular history, it is also a driving force behind it, influencing to a large degree how Calgarians view their city. Most histories skip over disputes (and resulting barbarity) with First Nations or violent political clashes of the late nineteenth century.
“Popular history gives you a sense of roots without making you aware that these roots might be negative or poisonous,” says Glasberg. “It rarely talks about the dark side because it’s a way in which we want to strengthen our identities, not challenge them.”
A recent example of this popular history can be found in James Martin’s Calgary: The Unknown City. The book, part of a series that saw a similar publication in Vancouver, features small bites of information about Calgary’s interesting and less-talked about past. From local scandals and urban folklore to brushes with Hollywood, the book offers brief accounts of seldom seen pieces of our town.
“I’m not a trained historian–I’m just a guy who likes a weird story,” Martin confesses, pointing out differences in content between more traditional history books and his own. “Those other books serve a function and they do have their own audience, but basically my loose mandate was not to do anything that was in those.”
However, put to Glasberg’s standards, Martin’s book is still the tame popular history that avoids the undesirable.
“The dark side is not good for a person’s self-image and popular history often focuses on the positive,” Glasberg says. “So you look for things that tend to be charming or quaint.”
While Martin’s book may still be popular history, it does serve a purpose in shaping our city’s perception of itself. Popular history, and not academic history, is what the masses are exposed to, making it perhaps more important to the lives of most Calgarians. Martin says his book simply asks readers to look at their city under a new light, through a new lens.
“I think the book is trying to restore a sense of wonder in the world that’s around you,” he says. “The city works for you in a specific way in the day-to-day, and you get caught.”
One perception of Calgary that Martin hopes Calgarians can shake is the common associations with the Wild West.
“The â€˜cowboys and indians’ motif is certainly shoved down people’s throats,” says Martin, who moved from Calgary to Montreal two years ago. “I always thought it was ironic that Calgary prides itself in that Wild West history but any buildings that a cowboy would have walked into probably were knocked down 40 years ago.”
This can be seen in local imagery in many different instances. The western theme is on the foreground in local art, through City Hall (giving visiting dignitaries the white stetson), in our city’s flag and in how we market ourselves to the outside world. Even local cookbooks, when they’re not sporting images of the Rockies,
push the cowboy agenda through titles like From the Pioneer’s Kitchen and Horsing Around in the Kitchen. Glasberg attributes this to our need to connect to something, even if in reality we are very much removed from it.
“Calgarians are looking for some way to represent their past to themselves in a more immediate way, because history isn’t just a matter of narratives,” Glasberg explains. “The symbol of the cowboy represents certain ideals. To state what those ideals are is complex, but to see that in symbols is more powerful.”
Whatever the purpose–avoiding the unsettling or representing conflict–the act of documenting Calgary’s history, both academically and commercially, has undoubtedly shaped our city and the people who live in it. While we may have a history scarred with brutal savagery, most of us prefer to ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen. These attitudes and assumptions continue to shape us and shape the growth of Calgary. Martin’s book aims to break away from the typical Calgary lore, but unsurprisingly, it serves to avoid the undesirable as well. Even so, there’s something to be said for digging deeper, even if that search is one-sided.
“It’s corny to say â€˜stop and smell the roses,’” Martin says with caution. “It’s more â€˜stop and ponder the bizarre double-murder suicide that went on in that house on 17th Ave. a hundred years ago.’”