Letter from Calgary

December 6 1993


Letter from Calgary

December 6 1993


Letter from Calgary

In a poem entitled Calgary Now, the West Coast poet George Bowering wrote that “this city of narrow stores, ruled by preachers selling oil, extracts unreasonable love from its victims.” That love has endured despite some sobering set-backs over the years—big and small. Of late, Calgary has taken some lumps on the playing field.

On Nov. 20, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues defeated the University of Calgary Dinosaurs 37-34 to win the Vanier Cup, the Canadian university football championship. A day later, the CFL Stampeders failed to advance to the Grey Cup final, thanks to their perennial rivals, the Edmonton Eskimos. That left 8,000 Calgary volunteers to make the best of hosting the Big Game and five days of Cup festivities for visiting Edmontonians and Winnipeggers.

But over the past decade, the city has been rocked by seismic upheavals much greater than the mere sidelining of a football team.

The most painful was the collapse

of the frenetic oil boom of the late

1970s—a crash caused by a sharp decline in international petroleum prices in 1986 and, as locals never tire of reminding visitors, the

Trudeau government’s hated National Energy Program of 1980. Construction cranes that dominated the city’s skyline during the boom disappeared almost overnight, and thousands of roughnecks and executives alike lost their jobs in the subsequent downsizing. Now, an oilpatch revival is under way but, so far, there are few

signs of the excesses of the late 1970s, when house prices skyrocketed, social ills multiplied, greed became the gospel and Alberta governments spent wildly. The current rebound, led by smalland medium-sized oil and gas companies rather than U.S.-owned corporate giants, is more localized, and taking place in a deficit-ridden province that last week ordered a

controversial five-per-cent salary cutback of all public-sector employees. Some would-be tycoons still strut the streets decked out in suits, cowboy boots and oversized belt buckles, but the fabled three-martini, $75-a-person lunch tab has gone.

Indeed, signs of both the mini-boom in the oil and gas industry, and the the scaled-down expectations that accompany it, are most clearly visible at lunchtime. The downtown sidewalks, uncrowded for

most of the working day, suddenly fill a few minutes before noon with walkers. The Calgary Petroleum Club, the preferred luncheon club for oil executives, is buzzing once again. But the rule, more or less religiously followed in these stricter days, is to be back in the office by 1 p.m. sharp.

Judging from the food and potables that they consume, Calgary’s new oil barons are a more worldly lot than their brash predecessors

Calgary conies of age as new oil barons avoid the old excesses

in the late 1970s. Many restaurants are as likely to offer Oriental noodles as Alberta beef. In the Westin Hotel one day last month, Swiss-born executive chef Fred Zimmerman, presiding over one of his regular kitchen luncheons, listened to visiting French wine expert Marc Chapoutier explain why his château neuf-du-pape com-

plements Zimmerman’s roast lamb loin with Provençal herbs. Said Zimmerman, a veteran member of Canada’s Olympic culinary team: “This city is very metropolitan now. Oilmen travel the world and they want those experiences and different tastes here.”

Ethnic influences abound at other downtown restaurants as well— from dim sum at Kites, through spicy Cajun cooking in the city’s new downtown Eau Claire Market, to French-styled La Maison de Yervand and La Chaumière, to the southwestern U.S. menu and decor at Mescalero, one of several stylish restaurants operated by Calgaryborn Witold Twardowski. At the Banff Springs Hotel’s Bordeaux Wine and Food Festival last month, about 300 guests, most of them Calgarians, attended a two-day event that included a $150-a-plate gala dinner of roast duck orchestrated by Chef Jean-Pierre Moulle, a chef at San Francisco’s famed Chez Panisse.

The variety on the menus, in part, reflects the influx of immigrants and other outside influences into Calgary since the last boom. An

estimated 10 per cent of Calgary’s

720,000 citizens are now members of a visible minority, and the stream from Hong Kong, Vietnam and other Asian countries continues. The city’s Chinatown, once a dusty collection of restaurants and illegal gambling parlors, now boasts a $7-million Chinese Cultural Centre, completed last year, with columns covered with gold leaf installed by craftsmen flown in from China. And the newcomers are not content to sit on the political sidelines.

Vietnamese-born Conservative MLA Hung Pham represents Calgary Montrose, a working-class district that is home to many newcomers, in the Alberta Legislature. Inner-city schools, such as Victoria and Connaught community schools are predominantly immigrant, and several mosques and Hindu temples contribute to Calgary’s altered skyline.

The city’s economic base is also broader now than it was in the early 1980s, largely due to concerted efforts by local and provincial governments.

The University of Calgary, ranked fifth in the best overall reputation category in Maclean’s annual ranking of Canadian universities last month, recently announced a new chair in hydrogen technology, a crucial link to environmentally acceptable exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands. Overall, according to the Calgary Economic Development

Authority, the city’s populace is among the most highly educated in the country, with more than 15 per cent of adults having postsecondary education.

Culturally, too, Calgary has matured. Although the Conservative provincial government has reduced funding to theatres to help reduce its deficit, revitalized oil companies and their employees have helped pick up the slack. Last month, the Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) staged a production of exiled Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, while Theatre Calgary mounted a version of U.S. playwright Jay Allen’s one-man show Tru, with Canadian actor Louis

Negin in the title role of writer Truman Capote. As well, ATP’s playRites festival, which launches four new Canadian plays every January, has grown into a national theatrical event, well-supported by energy companies.

The city’s music scene is also on the rebound after suffering through hard times. The Calgary Philharmonic has survived a fouryear financial crisis, and is midway through a successful season, due mainly to healthy box-office sales. At the rough-and-ready King Edward Hotel (or the King Eddy as it is always called), which has a daytime identity as a strip bar, major U.S. blues acts including Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown and Robert Qunior) Lockwood have drawn big crowds in recent weeks. A few blocks south on Electric Avenue, a three-block cluster of brightly lit bars, restaurants and pubs, the city government is widening the sidewalks to accommodate the crowds

of young people who hang out on the street. On the downtown mall near the Bankers Hall office tower, as he has for the past seven years despite temperatures as low as -40° C, busker Ted Wayne Wilson sings carols and his favorite arias, including Nessun Dorma, from Puccini’s Turandot.

Although the upswing in the oil and gas industry has done much to revive spirits over the past year, most locals credit the 1988 Winter Olympics for lifting them out of the doldrums that followed the oil bust. With 10,740 volunteers involved, the Games were a personal tri-

umph for many, as well as an invaluable tourist promotion. The games also left behind a huge physical legacy—the $90-million Saddledome arena, a 400-m indoor skating oval at the University of Calgary and a wellendowed Calgary Olympic Development Association to operate Canada Olympic Park, site of ski jumping and bobsledding events, as well as an Olympic museum.

While the boom of the late 1970s brought big-city-style prosperity to Calgary, the subsequent bust gave the community its first taste of big-citystyle poverty and hardship. The collapse stretched the city’s social programs to bursting point. And as thousands of migrants continued to pour into the city looking for jobs, the crime rate soared. Then-Mayor Ralph Klein blamed the city’s woes on “creeps and bums” from Eastern Canada, a remark that haunted him for the next decade. Incensed natives of the Maritimes threw beer bottles at him on one visit to their annual picnic.

Now, even after recent cutbacks in funding for social programs by the provincial government, the locals appear to be more kindly disposed to the homeless and others who are down on their luck. Most of the the Inter-Faith Food Bank collection boxes around the cities are already brimming with Christmas donations. The Mustard

Seed Street Ministry, in turn, feeds 300 people daily. As well, the Calgary Drop-In Centre, near the banks of the Bow River, has room for 110 to bed down nightly on mattresses on its floor.

Politically, Calgary has also undergone a dramatic transformation since the early 1980s. The remnants of the old Tory ruling class remain ensconced in their beautifully groomed Calgary Golf and Country Club, and club membership retains its top cachet. But even before the Oct. 25 federal election, the power brokers were changing. Many local business leaders expect Re-

form party Leader Preston Manning, late of Edmonton and now member of Parliament for once-Tory, blue-chip Calgary

Southwest, to found a fresh elite. The mayor, Al Duerr, is a Liberalleaning outsider from Saskatchewan whose wife, Kit Chan, was born in China. Among Calgary’s once-dominant Tory politicians, only expremier Peter Lougheed maintains his pre-eminence. On Nov. 16, 350 guests showed up for his speech at an annual business awards luncheon sponsored by Oilweek, an oil industry publication.

Still, one of the surest signs of Calgary’s revival and renewed confidence is how its citizens give. Last week, the United Way campaign, boosted by the oilpatch upswing, passed its $11.5-million fund-raising goal. As Larry Macdonald, campaign chairman and local businessman, put it: ‘We don’t need to win the Grey Cup. We’re already winners.”

JOHN HOWSE in Calgary