KATHERINE GOVIER February 15 1988


KATHERINE GOVIER February 15 1988





It is a naked city, relatively treeless as prairie cities are. It spills from Nose Hill, once the site of frontier brothels, across the valleys of the Bow and Elbow rivers south, beyond the grain elevators at Midnapore, where the city’s first millionaire, meat-packer Pat Burns, had his ranch. The eastern edge is who knows where, lost among cloverleafs and the airport and some industrial lands, but, oh, the western edge. At the western edge is Artists’ Lookout. The landscape painters who once frequented it have given it up to wealthy yuppies, but this is a view you could die for, over the foothills and directly into the giant ragged pyramids of the Rocky Mountains, 130 km away.

Traffic moves on “trails” named for Indians—Crowchild, Sarcee, Deerfoot, Shaganappi. In its suburban districts, the residential streets circle and bisect each other in a madman’s geometry. But developers kindly gave all the streets in a given area names beginning with the same letter. If it starts with B, it’s Brentwood, E is for Eagle Ridge and P is for Parkland.

Vistas: I think of standing in the backyard on Cavanaugh Place (that’s a C, it’s in Collingwood), holding a shrub my father wants to plant. “Move it over,” he tells me, “six inches north.” Of course I know where north is. If that had been in the middle of Toronto, wouldn’t he have said move it toward the tree? But there we were near the top of this bald prairie hill, measuring, projecting ourselves not just onto the surrounding land but onto the very globe, for heaven’s sake, our fence lines right up there with longitude and latitude. Every Calgarian loves a view. The homestead and the small town are in the past, but he is peering into the distance, happy to think that nothing stands between him and the horizon.

This is the city Canadians love to hate. Its citizens are nursed on the rude remarks hurled by disgruntled easterners. But can it really be more ugly, more brash, less soulful than other North American cities? I doubt it. The problem is that Calgary has no pretence, no identity crisis. Perhaps what eastern Canadians really resent is that Calgary is the quintessence of Canada—a 20th-century city imposed on a timeless landscape.

Having skipped the 19th century, Calgary lacks sentimental urban Victoriana, gables, peaks and narrow brick fronts. Foreign visitors love it for this very reason, citing its energy, openness, the cowboy past and mountain backdrop. In 1875 the North West Mounted Police wanted a fort as a defence against American whisky traders who already had footholds north of the border at forts Whoop-Up and Standoff. It was September when Insp. Brisebois and his 50 Mounties arrived on the North Hill and looked down.

C. E. Denny was in the party and wrote, “Thick woods bordered the banks of both streams; to the west towered mountains with their heavy peaks; beyond the Elbow stretched another wide valley and heavy timber .... Buffalo in large bands grazed in the valley .... Our first sight of this enchanting spot was one never to be forgotten, one to which only a poet could do justice.” Tents: Near the forks of the Elbow were an Indian ceremonial death lodge and the burned-out timbers of Fred Kanouse’s whisky post. The newcomers built a log palisade and mud huts over Indian graves, and, by the early 1880s, 77 people were living in tents on the east side of the Elbow River. I think about that when I look over the city today—just over 100 years ago it was tents. At that time in London, England, 63 people were living in one house in the Spitalfields slum; in the southern Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Jews were fleeing to Europe from pogroms; and in Ottawa, the $4.5-million gothic revival Parliament Buildings had been completed.

It was there in Ottawa in 1882 that the government made a last-minute decision to drive the CPR tracks along the valley of the Bow River, through Kicking Horse Pass. The day that the first train came through—in August, 1883—CPR president George Stephen invited beloved Oblate priest Father Albert Lacombe to drink champagne in his private railway car to celebrate the event. Lacombe had helped pacify the Blackfoot, persuading them to give up their blockade of the railroad surveyor

ors, and Stephen was grateful. He made the priest president of the CPR for an hour. Lacombe accepted, and then pronounced Stephen rector of his Calgary parish for the same hour, whereupon Stephen is said to have looked out the window of the train car and said, “Poor souls of Calgary, I pity you!”

Was it for an hour or for a century that they traded places? It did continue to look as if business, commonly known as progress, was lined up with God, and the citizens were in the keeping of political forces. Known as “the land of the second son,” the western plains took settlers from the slums, the steppes and from eastern Canada. Their high hopes were destined to be raised and dashed repeatedly, but local boosters believed passionately that Calgary would be a great city. In 1886 a fire destroyed many of the wood-frame structures of the town. With 14 years to go in the 19th century, Calgary began to rebuild in sandstone, leaving the city some of the finest landmarks in the West.

Beginnings: Women’s rights leader Nellie McClung called it “the land of beginning again.” And again, and again, we might add today. For the merchants lucky enough to survive the cycles of prosperity and gloom, life in Calgary and environs was good. Ranch life was socially genteel and physically exhilarating; in the English manner, one ate steak-and-kidney pie for lunch and, in the American way, gambled in the hotels in the evening.

Even a town dweller like Susan Knight, whose memoirs can be read in the Glenbow Museum archives, saw prairie beauty: “Where the General Hospital now stands, I remember one hill yellow with golden violets, another hill a mass of blue blossoms, and nearby would be a valley red with tiger lilies and above a blue sky with white floating clouds. Among the prairie grass were many buffalo skulls and sometimes even a human skull.” There is a hint of poetry in Knight, of T.S. Eliot’s “skull beneath the skin.” And there is a dark side to the city that has coexisted with death and defeat. The wisdom of Father Lacombe and others instrumental in containing Indian resistance has now been called into question. Everyone knows about Calgary’s boom-and-bust cycle, but not so many understand the intensity of the dream that lived through

drought, hailstorms and depression.

A political cartoon in the Grain Growers Guide of 1915 shows a large cow astride the map of Can-

ada: it eats Alberta grain and is milked in Ontario. Another shows the Prairie provinces as a damsel tied to the tracks as a train rolls in marked “High Freight Rates.” The political sensibility known to the egocentric East as alienation is really a bizarre combination of vision and cynicism, innocence and experience. It is a matter of holding onto the dream of progress, even while knowing that Something Out There is stopping it.

In 1923 Laura Goodman Salverson waited in Calgary for the publication of her novel, The Viking Heart, about an immigrant girl escaping farm life for the city. Although it was Winnipeg that she originally ran to, she might have been writing about Calgary: “The soul of a city is fed by knowledge and ambition; it is tempered by adversity and grief; it is beautified by love and honor; and it is made eternal through sacrifice and death.”

Ambition, adversity, sacrifice, love—melodramatic though she sounds, Salverson is right. It seems appropriate that, after his efforts to sustain a farm outside Calgary, A. J. Stringer, author of the classic trilogy of homesteading life (Prairie Wife, Prairie Mother, Prairie Child), left for New York where he wrote the filmscript The Perils of Pauline. But contrary to rumor, the city is rich in literary tradition. It has a history of witty reportage in Bob Edwards’s newspaper the Calgary Eye Opener ; Robert Stead wrote for The Albertan newspaper before going on to write his masterful novel of prairie life, Grain; Nellie McClung wrote her last four books while living in Calgary; and W.O. Mitchell has often written about the city.

Nature: But no doubt most of those writers felt, like Salverson, that Calgary didn’t care enough for literature. Perhaps this too will come. Right now it is a city pulled between technology and its opposite force, nature. Prime time on the local radio and television is 6 to 8 a.m. Calgarians say that they have to get up early to deal with head office in Toronto (that’s “Hogtown”), but the truth is that they like to start the day fresh under that relentless blue sky and still have time to wind-surf on the Glenmore Reservoir. The most prized paintings are oil portraits of Indians by Nichola de Grandmaison and anything that reflects the landscape outside their windows. Provided they do as the Indians did—respect the gods of rock, earth and water—the land is forever.

Alberta-born Katherine Govier now lives in Toronto, and her lastest novel, Between Men, is set in Calgary.