Deciphering the Calgary Stampede

Cowboy hat crowd (Creative Commons shot)
Photo: Creative Commons

I have to admit: come Stampede time in Calgary, I wear my civic heart on my sleeve.

Truth is, while I can claim Calgary as my birthplace and have loosely called it “home” for most of my adult life, I’ve spent more years living away than living here.  But strangely enough, that time away has turned me into an even stronger fan of our biggest summer festival than I might have been.

Not so much for all the attractions on the Stampede grounds (although my July’s not complete without a wander through the Dream Home and the livestock barns – and my annual candy apple vs. cotton candy debate on the midway).

Nor for the signature Stampede rodeo (although rodeo has claimed a piece of my heart ever since I was a kid at my bedroom window watching flashlights comb the bush nearby for a bull escapee from the Lacombe Indoor Rodeo.  A mean-humped bull that I had just seen triumph in the arena.  Pounding the dirt of the field that I’d walked home across not an hour earlier.  My seven-year-old reaction to that chain of events still holds today:  rodeo bulls rock!)

No, what impresses and amazes me most is how, 104 years in, this festival of cowboy culture maintains a grip on our common consciousness that seems as strong as it ever was.  How a city of corporate highrises,  urban bike trails, and sprawling suburbs, with its 1.2 million strong population drawn from every corner of the globe, embraces – at least for 10 days every summer – a sense of shared experience.

Where downtown office towers shut down on Parade Morning to let their employees join the 200,000+ spectators downstairs ogling shiny floats, horses, and marching bands.

Where conversations at the coffee machine turn to Stampede party recommendations and who’s looking likely to win the chuckwagon races this year.

Where working the Stampede is a rite of passage for thousands of city high school students; a place where they get their first taste of employer expectations and learn the rudiments of customer service.

And where thousands of volunteers, too, tend exhibits at the Stampede grounds, or flip pancakes and sling beer from one corner of the city to the other, all in the name of Stampede spirit and fundraising.

It’s a sense of shared community that’s difficult to articulate to the visitor (or to that sliver of cynical Calgarians who take determined flight from the festive crowds every summer).

But for those interested in figuring out what this Stampede thing is all about, it’s the pancake breakfasts, I believe, that best encapsulate what I’m getting at.

“A couple of free pancakes and sausages on a paper plate,” you say.  “Chilling in the morning breeze. And you LINE UP for this.  Huh – go figure.”

If you’re not already a believer, maybe I can’t sell you on this.  But I set out on a short pancake odyssey this week to try and capture what I mean.  It may come off corny and my effort may be doomed, but walk with me for a few minutes, as I explore the Stampede Breakfast experience:

Prospect Stampede BBQ, featuring the Great Canadian Army Burger Challenge

Okay, so my initial stop is a free lunch instead of a pancake breakfast, but it’s two days before the official start of Stampede and this is the first one out of the gate.

Army Burger ChallengeWhen I pull up at 15 minutes past noon, the lineup for burgers already loops twice around the parking lot and snakes past the corner to the busy grill at the back.  Seems the folks who work in the neighbourhood have caught on to the free food in the 27 years that this barbecue has run.  But the event is news to me, as is Prospect itself:  a non-profit job placement agency that helps people who face barriers to employment.

Today’s barbecue highlights Forces@WORK, one of Prospect’s newest programs, designed to help Canada’s recent veterans transition successfully into the civilian workforce.  A good turnout of active military personnel appear in the crowd, trading jokes  and stories with members of other units, chatting with clients of Prospect’s developmental disability program, and cheering on the contestants of the Great Canadian Army Burger Challenge:  a food-channel-styled event that pits four contestants – active army cooks all – against one another in a battle for bragging rights and the Spatula D’Or.

Among the celebrity judges for the burger challenge are Calgary restaurant critic, John Gilchrist, and Master Chef Canada finalist, April Lee Baker.  They’re joined by Alberta Deputy Minister of Labour, Jeff Parr,  Calgary Flames forward, Joe Colborne (soon to be of the Colorado Avalanche), and Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross, Canada’s Chief of Military Personnel (and purveyor of crackling dry wit).

There’s a bouncy castle for the kids, a live band on deck, and giant tricycles tricked out as chuckwagons for the ingenuous to race.  Pro-chuckwagon racer, Mark Sutherland, stands by for autographs and photo-ops with his rig.

A sudden downpour with rolling thunder makes barely a dent in the food queue.  Instead, jackets appear, hoods go up, and those with umbrellas huddle together with those who don’t.  A Prospect staffer hands out green garbage bags to those like me who’ve come unprepared – but not before she carefully punches out neck and armholes making them ready-to-wear.  In the driving rain, the Army Burger contestants work, undaunted, on their creations.

Mechanical bull riderUltimately, the clouds clear and Warrant Officer Bryan Power – a veteran of Afghanistan and father of two – takes home the Spatula D’Or.  As spectators  and judges melt into the crowd, April Lee Baker and the lone female contestant share a quiet exchange of sisterhood and selfies.

Nearby, a woman with mobility challenges wants to sit on the mechanical bull, just to see how it feels.  A volunteer offers his knee as a step up, then again as a step down.  With a break in the action, he takes a spin on the bull himself.  HIS dismount is decidedly less graceful.


Calgary Dream Centre and 88.9 Shine FM Stampede Breakfast

Within minutes of musing aloud about how I’ve driven past this place countless times without knowing what it is, I’m told that 60% of people surveyed think it’s a centre for sleep treatment.  In reality, it’s a faith-based residence for the homeless and a treatment centre for addictions.  And home to 88.9 Shine FM radio.

Calgary Dream CentreOut front, a Stetsoned white board-member-type shares griddle duties with a guy whose weathered face and gaunt frame betray the hard knocks of a street life existence.  A couple of young men cuff each other in the shoulder as they join the pancake queue and catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since they last met.  One of them is currently in residence at the Dream Centre.

A thin, middle-aged man moves his cane out of the way so I can set my plate down at a communal table.  He waxes cynical on his recent experiences with the Stampede but concedes the rodeo is still pretty great. Stomach sated, I take a peek at the petting corral.  A young woman of First Nations descent introduces me to her one-month-old niece, while her older sister pets the goats with the baby’s toddling brother.

Dream Centre stick ponyAt the coffee dispenser, I run into a pair of cyclists who’ve taken a break from their ride for a bite of pancake and a look around.  Turns out they’re refugees from the Fort McMurray fire – and all that’s left of their former home is concrete foundation and a pile of ash.  But they’ve got jobs to go back to in September, they reassure me, and a line on a potential place to live.  “Ah, we were travelling too heavy anyway,” the woman says with a shrug and a smile.

We band together with about a dozen others for a tour of the Dream Centre, kindly offered by the staff every half hour.  We view a well-crafted video, as well as the sleek cafeteria, classrooms, and public spaces of this once vermin-infested hotel and strip club.  Remarks about the centre’s suit gifting program perk the ears of fellow tour-goers who are staffers from another agency that serves the homeless.  Business cards are exchanged; pledges made to get in touch.

A Latina woman on the tour laughingly confesses to underage drinking here at the Spanish nights in the former bar.  I smile at the ballsy-ness of her teenage self.  It occurs to me, then, that courage comes in many different flavours and today I’ve witnessed several of them.

Calgary Japanese Community Association Stampede Breakfast

From a square of pavement in a blocked-off street, the warm tenor voice of a country singer sends out a Saturday morning serenade to the residents of Killarney.    It’s Craig Moritz – solo musician, and today’s featured guest of the Calgary Japanese Community Association at their 6th Annual Stampede Breakfast.

Faux hide and red bootsI know that North American country music has a startling number of practitioners and fans in Japan and I speculate whether that might be the genesis for this event.  Silver-haired Keiko Takenchi hands me a paper plate and gently sets me straight.  The pancake breakfast is organized, she says, to introduce the neighbourhood to the Calgary Nikkei Cultural Centre and to give Japanese seniors who can’t get down to the grounds a little hit of Stampede.

The volunteers here sport the most well-groomed Stampede ensembles I’ve seen anywhere, and I secretly covet the faux cowhide aprons and red boots of the women who rule the griddle.  Ruth Nagata runs the Food Bank donation table and when she hears what I do, we talk travel.  Seems she retired from Travel Alberta some years back and now trots the globe to keep track of her children and grandchildren, does some informal consulting with Japanese tour agencies, and volunteers at – well – things like this.

Midnight Taiko drummersCraig Moritz cedes the asphalt to the CJCA Line-Dancers: a seniors’ group who practice every Sunday at the Nikkei Centre.  Ms. Takenchi pulls up a piece of curb and alternately cheers and heckles the dozen performers with affection.

After a complex 15-minute routine that banishes any doubts about the inherent memory capacity of the aged, the line-dancers take a break.  From a shy performer who caught me grooving on the sidelines, I learn that the troupe appeared at a downtown Buddhist conference awhile back, but mostly line-dance as an excuse to get together with friends.

The crowd grows as the Midnight Taiko drummers take the stage in a show of musical power and traditional Japanese finery.  For those yearning to take a little piece of Japan home with them, a bounty of Japanese foodstuffs is available for sale in the nearby cultural centre, imported for the occasion directly up Highway 2 from Lethbridge.

Connections 2016 Artist-Run Pancake Breakfast

“Tequila Sunrise” may be playing on the sound system outside the Ruberto Ostberg  Gallery, but the talk here steers neither to climbing fences nor to drinking hard (well, perhaps there’s a little talk on the drinking front).

Gallery breakfastInstead, I overhear a debrief about a recent five week arts residency near Rome, and an ironic and speculative discourse about how best to harness architectural design for the forces of good and evil.  A lavender-haired young woman behind me in the food line talks X-Men with a couple of fanboys.  A cluster of art professors discuss the challenges of keeping students engaged in class.

The pancake line itself winds attractively and strategically through the interior of the small gallery, allowing visitors to survey the current collection on show.  The pieces are diverse in medium and theme, but uniformly accessible to the casual art appreciator like me.   That, I learn, echos the gallery’s mission precisely:  to provide a comfortable space for all art lovers, regardless of their level of art sophistication, to view some of Canada’s best talent.

Gallery interiorStaffing the griddle and the serving tables are the exhibiting artists themselves, so I ask the woman serving the melons whether she knew what she was signing up for when she got involved with the show.  “Not really,” she laughs,  “but I prefer to be busy”.  Which gets me wondering how it feels to stand around while others dissect your creations with their eyes.

The gallery’s tight street-corner location permits no room for a bouncy castle.  But here the kids can use a box of colourful sidewalk chalk instead,  and a long blank canvas of concrete on which to make their mark.

A young artist cleaning up the coffee station points me in the direction of her sculptural piece when I ask about her work.  “Go ahead and open the drawer if you want.”  (An art piece I can play with – how cool is that?)

I take my coffee to the basement for a gander at more work, and a behind-the-scenes peek at the Purple Door Art Studio next door.  I briefly consider the studio’s beginner classes – then hear my Grade Six teacher’s voice in my head and beat a hasty retreat.

‘Agahan’ First Stampede All-Filipino Breakfast

First thing you should know about this event:  the “All-Filipino” label refers not to the attendees but to the food offerings.  As in pandesal bread, longganisa sausage, phili hot dogs, fried rice, and Pinoy-style scrambled eggs.  Not a pancake in sight.

Stampede AgahanAnd although the Filipino community in Calgary is more than 25,000 strong, this is their very first Stampede breakfast.  Marichu Antonio (Communications Co-Chair for the Philippine Festival Council of Alberta) tells me the organizing committee felt it was time for the Filipino community to fully engage with the city.

Seems they got the timing part right.  Less than 2 hours into the Agahan (that’s Tagalog for “breakfast”), they’ve served 1500 people – and another 1250 stand patiently in line.

The event runs like a well-oiled machine, despite its status as a first-time effort.  A full contingent of Filipino musicians is on hand, including a young female up-and-comer singing sweet pop songs to the accompaniment of her ukulele, and a guitar- driven rock band with its dread-locked front man belting out Pinoy anthems, Beatles, and Pearl Jam.  Miss Philippines Canada as well as Miss Teen Philippines and her two princesses present their best runway struts, then draw onlookers onto the pavement for dancing.

Filipino dancersA small brigade of short boys and tall girls in yellow Calgary Warriors Basketball T-shirts are on clean-up detail, although the folks from Pacific Hut Restaurant handle the big stuff.  Politicians take to the stage for a series of welcomes.  Sponsors are duly thanked.  A stroller-pushing mom who’s getting her plate filled at the buffet table tells me she’s waited an astoundingly-short 30 minutes in the queue.

With the energy high as the last of the live bands makes its exit, a song request is lobbed at the sound man.  Billy Ray Cyrus soon croons out his “Achy Breaky Heart” and fills the space in front of the stage with spontaneous line-dancers.  Minutes later,  J-Lo’s “Let’s Get Loud” draws out the zumba crowd – and here the party prevails.

Half an hour before the event is officially scheduled to end, the food line closes because supplies are running out.

But no worries if you haven’t had your breakfast yet.  Right around the corner, Sedona Dental office is just gearing up with theirs.


I’m not sure if I can keep up the pace for the remainder of Stampede, but there’s a raft of interesting breakfasts still to come:

Cowboy goes cross-culture at the MINAS Brazilian Stampede Breakfast and at the International Avenue BRZ’s “Best of the East”;

The Kerby Centre takes it indoors for the seniors, and Own It promises halal meat;

And then there’s the Pho Down (See what they did there?  That’s hoe-down, but with Vietnamese pho…).

If you’re interested in checking them out, there’s an app for that (Free Stampede Pancakes) and a website as well (  Or simply head downtown, or to a church or a mall near you.

If you’re a visitor, introduce yourself.  If you’re a local, meet some of your neighbours.  Or better yet, get out and meet the folks who are not.

Text and photos © 2016 Catherine Van Brunschot (except where noted)

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