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Dismantling the Scarecrow: An Exploration Into Calgary’s Cultural Coming of Age

May 1, 2011

by Nancy Black

2011 Dalton Camp Award WINNER

A 45-minute drive south of Calgary on Highway 2 brings you to the edge of the Rocky Mountain foothills and the beginning of prime Alberta ranch country. On the side of the road, on the edge of a vast stretch of land, sits a well-maintained sign that proclaims in bold letters, “Less Ottawa, More Alberta.” In a province where spare language is commonly employed to support peoples’ passions (“Support Our Troops,” “I ‘Heart’ Alberta Beef”), this slogan rings with a particularly brazen isolationist undertone. Most native Westerners can recognize the proclamation as yet another manifestation of decades-old western alienation born out of grudges over lost national contracts and oil revenues. The more self-conscious Albertan might wonder what, if any measure of comity, is expected to be elicited by the sign from newcomers or visitors passing by on their way to the next milepost of good fortune that dots a landscape so rich in blessings as to be convincingly branded “God’s Country.”

For every isolationist malcontent in the region, one wonders if there is an equal constituency that holds a more collectivist and universal view of the world and their place within it. Modern-day cosmopolitans, as Martha Nussbaum describes in her 1994 essay, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” are those people who reject self-definition based on “morally irrelevant characteristics” such as nationhood or regional affiliation and hold out allegiance for “morally good” characteristics such as universal justice, reason, and mutual respect.1 Nussbaum’s premise is that the “me/my region first” ideology is not a sustainable foundation on which to build a society and that hyper-patriotism has the potential to turn subversive, as some would say occurred in American national security policy following the events of September 11, 2001. In this essay, we use Nussbaum’s interpretations and those of her philosophical contemporaries as a guide to probe Calgary’s social, political, and media institutions and to understand the extent to which the popular stereotype of Calgary as a predominantly isolationist culture continues to hold true. 

As Kwame Anthony Appiah describes in Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, cosmopolitanism is invoked not to denigrate parochial societies but to find a sustainable way forward. “We have to figure out how to live in a world in which our responsibilities are, not to just a hundred people with whom we can interact with [sic] and see, but to six or seven billion people whom we cannot see and whom we can affect only in indirect ways.”2 With so many eyes on Calgary for its significant influence on globally-shared domains like the economy and the environment, this psychic and physical place is a worthy one in which to pull over, unpack our tools, and explore the competing forces of isolationism and cosmopolitanism in a real-world context. 

A Culture in Context

The newly formed Calgary of the late 1800s did not hold the same broad appeal to immigrants as Canada’s port cities or those with a more diverse or established economy. The city’s first wave of newcomers, largely immigrants from Northern Europe, was drawn to its agricultural promise. The Leduc oil discovery of 1947 brought the second major wave, consisting largely of profit-seeking Americans responding to the burgeoning fossil fuel industry.3 In Robert Stamp’s Suburban Modern: Postwar Dreams in Calgary, historian Max Foran describes their influence: “By 1965, over 30,000 Americans lived in the city, with their numbers directed toward the higher income brackets. They figured prominently in the city’s social and economic life, and in many ways Calgary had ‘more in common with Tulsa or Houston than with Toronto, Montreal or Hamilton.’”4 

Modern-day Calgary is virtually unrecognizable from its postwar years. A visit downtown on Stampede Parade day reveals a diverse citizenry. Families of multiple ethnicities line the parade route to enjoy the cultural panorama. Here, a Caribbean steel band, there, the Ismaeli Muslim/Habitat for Humanity float, next the Stoney Indians, then the pioneer women. A recent article in Maclean’s provides the numbers behind Calgary’s changing face: “Its dynamic economy makes it home to more immigrants per capita than Montreal…. Nearly a quarter of the population is a visible minority.”5 But modern cosmopolitanism demands more from a society than ethnic diversity. In her commentary on North London, Ranji Devadason makes an important distinction between a city that happens to be culturally diverse and one that is truly cosmopolitan, defining the latter as “not something which can be inferred from diversity in itself; it requires transformation in ‘structures of meaning’ (Hannerz, 1990, p. 239) both for the individual and the political community.”6 In what ways, if any then, might Calgary be building those structures of meaning to bridge over to its democratically cosmopolitan ideal? 

Ideology vs. Ideas

While Calgary’s politicians may endorse economic cosmopolitanism (i.e. free trade, foreign ownership), experts would say this is of little relevance to the moral cosmopolitan.7 Moral cosmopolitanism favours the free trade of ideas over commerce and, therefore, seldom do the two ideologies jibe. Calgary’s political ideology could be safely characterized as entrenched. Its citizens have supported the provincial Progressive Conservative government’s uninterrupted forty-year reign and the lengthy run of the even more traditional party that preceded it.8 The current regime’s most viable rival is the even more conservative and isolationist Wild Rose Party. Calgary is the birthplace of the two right-wing parties that morphed into the current ruling federal Conservative party, the party that continues to support Member of Parliament Rob Anders despite his highly-publicized 2001 accusation that Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela was a “terrorist,”9 the party that has publicly withdrawn from a 2011 United Nations conference on racism,10 and has cultivated a cavalier acceptance of that organization’s decision to reject Canada’s bid for a two-year seat on its Security Council.11 If there were a contest to name the city whose historical voting practices support everything cosmopolitanism is not, Calgary would place prominently. 

Conversely, if there were a poster child for everything cosmopolitanism personifies, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi would be it. Elected in October 2010 to the non-partisan job of mayor, Nenshi is a visible minority person of Muslim faith. He is an intellectual. His election platform proposed progressive concepts like bike lanes and transit funding. The very fact of his being elected garnered poorly-veiled amazement from other jurisdictions, raising deep questions as to what this signified about the city, still viewed in some corners as a “white-bread oil town.”12 When asked to respond, Nenshi coolly commented, “issues of race and religion have not come up very much—except, frankly, by the media.”13 

An Emerging Commons

While traditional media ownership in Calgary is not as concentrated as in some Canadian cities,14 the bias of its two major newspapers is skewed to the interests of business. The Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, though owned by separate entities, appear to present the same business- focused viewpoint albeit to slightly different audiences (white-collar versus blue-collar) and in different formats (broadsheet and tabloid). If, as Nussbaum believes “one of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one's own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural,”15 then Calgary’s talk radio station AM770 CHQR is doing its best to hold up the blinders. Notorious for its hosts’ unceremonious silencing of dissenting voices and indulgence of anti-government rants, the highest-rated radio station in Calgary16 provides the breeding ground for the inflammatory shorthand so appealing to folks like our griping landowner with the billboard. By luring the disenfranchised to its bully pulpit for their own 45 seconds of fame, it perpetuates – among a sufficiently large proportion of the citizenry – the illusion of democratic dialogue. 

The relatively recent adoption of Twitter has created a popular, unmediated commons that has allowed a grassroots discourse to develop in Calgary; one more in tune with people than lobbies. The defeat of two media and business-friendly candidates in the 2010 Calgary mayoral campaign attests to the phenomenon. Nenshi used social media to sustain a free-flowing, uncensored dialogue with Calgarians that propelled popular support of his campaign from eight to forty percent in four weeks.17 The intensive wave of public and media interest that followed is evidence that Calgary is no social media laggard. What this says about Calgary is that two-way, 24-hour public conversation has the potential to usurp artificial discourse and awaken people to the possibility that the landowner’s billboard, the irrelevant press, and the radio rants are straw men created to divert attention from meaningful debates about Calgary’s true democratic fitness and its citizens’ responsibilities to their wider family of brothers and sisters. 

Hearts Without Borders

It may come as a surprise to many that Calgary lags only Toronto and Vancouver in its percentage of multiracial or “mixed” unions (6.1 percent versus a national average of 3.9 percent) and this has the potential to influence identity and attitudes over time. “The impact of mixed unions could be far-reaching in changing the dynamic and nature of Canada’s ethnocultural diversity in future generations. These consequences may impact the language transfer that takes place within mixed union households, as well as the experiences of children in mixed families and the way in which children of mixed unions report their ethnocultural origins and identify with visible minority groups.”18 

Minds Beyond Borders

Calgary’s young people are well-positioned to be the catalyst for the city’s ultimate cosmopolitan breakthrough. Here is an excerpt from the report of the Calgary’s Youth, Canada’s Future conference, an event commemorating the province’s centennial that involved 70 young people at the University of Calgary: 

When asked to describe their [the participants’] principal attachments… Alberta does not seem to be part of their psychic imagination. It has either been displaced or is overshadowed by other identities… . When asked if Albertans should emphasize their regional identity less and their Canadian identity more, over 60 percent gave priority to Canada. There is little comfort in these results for those who argue that there is a distinct Alberta way of life, or who trumpet the need to erect “firewalls” to protect provincial institutions and promote the politics of western alienation, let alone separation.19

The report suggests that immigration and information technology are providing unprecedented access to other cultures and ideologies, rendering the once popular concept of regionalism irrelevant to Calgary’s youth. While it is possible passions will cool as Calgary’s young citizens take their places as workers and leaders in contemporary life, there is an equal potential for passions to ignite and give rise to substantive ideological progress. 

Yet despite all progressive indicators, static provincial and federal voting patterns and a tacit acceptance of propagandist local media would indicate that Calgary has yet to confront an existential urgency to evolve toward its cosmopolitan potential. Despite its small steps toward fully integrated democracy, Calgary remains ideologically virgin territory with a sizeable constituency – like our griping landowner – still holding back from discovering “the other.” Kwame Anthony Appiah prescribes a spree of ideological promiscuity to such societies: “great civilizations and great cultural moments are usually not the result of purity but of the contamination and combination of ideas to produce new things.”20 Calgary’s intellectual history is built upon the fluke emergence of a singular industry with singular values that its power players and the cultural, educational, and media institutions they operate must perpetuate. While the elements of true cosmopolitanism are drifting into its cultural gulfstream, Calgary is ripe for that decisive catalystic gust that will propel its citizens toward a true understanding of their privilege and an openness to true representational and operational democracy. It could be catastrophe that ignites this change, but it could also be the collective power of individual human agency as witnessed in the historic 2010 mayoral race. Until that time, while the ideological scarecrows still stand, we see slow but promising evidence of decay as pieces lose their hold and blow off into a borderless wind.

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Endnotes

1.Martha Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review XIX, no.5 (1994), http://my.opera.com/PRC/blog/martha-nussbaum-patriotism-and-cosmopolitanism

2.Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Cosmopolitanism,” In A. Taylor (Ed.), Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, ed. Astra Taylor (New York: The New Press, 2009), 113.

3.Robert Stamp, Suburban Modern: Postwar Dreams in Calgary (Calgary: TouchWood Editions, 2004), 32.

4.Ibid., 33.

5.“The Real Face of Calgary – Young, Cosmopolitan, Confident,” Maclean’s, November 1, 2010,  http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/10/28/the-real-face-of-calgary/

6.Ranji Devadason, “Cosmopolitanism, Geographic Imaginaries and Belonging in North London,” Urban Studies 47, no. 14 (2010): 2945-2963. doi: 10.1177/0042098009360228 2010 47: 2945 (2010)

7.“Cosmopolitanism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified November 28, 2006, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmopolitanism/

8.Elections Canada Archives, Electoral Summary 1905 – 2004, accessed January 4, 2011, http://web.archive.org/web/20061005000946/http://www.electionsalberta.ab.ca/electoralsummary.html

9.“PM Blasts MP for Blocking Mandela Honour,” CBC online, June 8, 2001, http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2001/06/07/mandela_mp010607.html

10.“Canada Skipping UN Racism ‘Hatefest’ Again, Ottawa Says,” Toronto Star, November 25, 2010, http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/896627--canada-will-skip-un-racism-conference-hatefest-again-ottawa-says

11.“2010 ‘Crystallized’ Canada's Changing Foreign Policy,” CTV news online, January 2, 2011,  http://edmonton.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20101224/heinbecker-canada-foreign-policy-110102/20110102/?hub=EdmontonHome

12.“The Real Face of Calgary – Young, Cosmopolitan, Confident,” Maclean’s, November 1, 2010,  http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/10/28/the-real-face-of-calgary/

13.“Calgary Chooses Nenshi as New Mayor,” CBC online, October 19, 2010, http://www.cbc.ca/canada/calgary/story/2010/10/19/calgary-election-mayor.html

14.Marc Raboy and David Taras, “Transparency and Accountability in Canadian Media Policy,” Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research 29, no. 1 (2004): 59-76.

15.Nussbaum, Boston Review

16.Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, Calgary CMA (August 30-November 28, 2010), accessed January 4, 2011, http://bbm.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=88&Itemid=71

17.Don Braid, “Nenshi Capitalizing on Social Media Buzz,” Calgary Herald, September 26, 2010, http://www.calgaryherald.com/technology/Braid+Nenshi+capitalizing+social+media+buzz/3581186/story.html

18.Maheux and Tina Chui, A Portrait of Couples in Mixed Unions. (Catalogue no. 11-008-X, Statistics Canada). 

19.Larry Felske, Gina Grosenick, Kelly Hogan, Laura Schultz, Tamara Seiler, and David Taras, Report: Calgary’s Youth Canada’s Future, accessed January 4, 2011, http://www.ucalgary.ca/agf/node/58

20.Appiah, Examined Life, 110.