Canadians tend to be ignorant about most places in Canada they don't actually live in. Calgary is one of those cool, small, beautiful places that Katie Heindl didn't know was awesome until about a week ago.
Photos by the author aka Ms. "I Only Figured Out Calgary Was Cool Last Week."
The original version of this article contained some inaccuracies about the land of Calgary that have since been corrected. Sorry 'bout that!
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Calgary, and I gotta say, I was a bit nervous. Mainly because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I always felt like Calgary had a bad reputation. For starters, the city is inherently evil to anybody east of Winnipeg with sad sack left leanings—who enjoy Thomas Mulcair’s beard more than any actual Canadian politician—because of its deserved image as the oil capital of the country, and oil is evil, right?
Add all of that to the mental imagery we are imprinted with in the eastern provinces of this country of a desolate, always-on-fire, post-apocalyptic frontier town—grey and ugly with open puddles of crude all over the place that you can fall into—and everyone, even the most of angelic children accidentally born there, are given a cowboy hat upon birth. Then there’s the gasoline soaked cherry on this western Canadian sundae, Stephen Harper and his dead shark eyes which call Calgary his home away from Sussex Drive. So my hopes, given all those things, were not high.
Well Katie, did you ever blow it! Calgary, you son of a great golden western bitch, are you ever a nice place to be.
Now, I am predisposed to be agreeable in any place I can wear cutoff shorts in, but that wasn’t it. As soon as we dropped into the city, the mountains flanking out at the sides of the valley Calgary sits in stirred up the feeling of a whole lot of space. All you see is long, rolling fields of green, brown, and gold. The sky, as you’re driving into the city, is the kind of sky you forget even exists when you’re used bumping the corners of your peripheral vision on massive buildings in a dense urban environment like Toronto. The city itself is small, and its most famous tower looks like someone hucked an old Campbell’s soup can on top of a concrete pillar. And no, it’s not even the tallest landmark in the skyline anymore, it literally gets blocked out in almost every part of the city, but there’s something really great, slapdash, and unapologetic about it.
That sort of ruffian, rowdy mentality permeates the whole place. The feeling really is something of a frontier town, a place that knows it’s small but is thrust into a place of economic and national importance—even though it would rather be out back drinking a beer, or hauling ass down the river in a literal tire. It’s a bit strange to see that every building downtown that’s not a hotel is either an oil company or a direct affiliate—BP, Shell, Enbridge, Imperial, Suncor—not strange because yes, “duh”, but in that you start calculating how much money is passing through those towers and in what varying capacities, as you’re trying to find a Jugo Juice. It’s impossible not to have a clear awareness of Canada’s massive energy industry when you’re wandering around Calgary.
It’s also impossible not to be aware of the resolute and persevering sprit of the West. The statues of broncos, bulls and mustangs on every block help; but beyond them, there is a palatable sense that this place just sprung up from nothing and is still there in the middle of nothing. The sense of open space is so loud—it’s nearly a sound. Wander through downtown on a weekend and see maybe four to six people, get to the fringes and everybody is there, spilling out into the streets, driving around in trucks, lolling around on porches attached to weirdly SoCal looking homes, cozy as anything. People in Calgary work hard, and if they’re not involved in oil, they work even harder. Yeah, they’re rich, but they just want to go outside and not be a dick about it.
And they’re outside because man, is it ever nice there. It stays light outside until after 10PM, something about latitude. Everyone is active and very healthy looking as a result, sort of like Vancouver but less annoying. It’s a casual, cultural healthiness. The winters blow of course, but they have warm blasts of Chinook winds that roll in from the Pacific every few weeks to balance things out.
Plain and simple, the people there are nice. You can’t walk around with a chip on your shoulder when you’re bound to know everyone. Also, their Mayor? Considering the maelstrom of shit Toronto is going through right now, hearing about the young, Muslim, funny as hell dude calling the shots in Calgary brings out the kind of “That’s unfaaaaaaair” whining you’ve probably not succumbed to since that kid next door got a better bike than you.
These things are everywhere! They're supposed to make you less nervous on grates but they mainly just freaked me out.
The bigger issue at play here is the obvious disconnect we have in Canada when it comes to the other places in Canada. Do you ever think about how our lack of a national identity might spring from the fact that most Canadians don’t know much about Canada aside from the part of it they’re living in? Meanwhile we are very good at damning places like the U.S. for the same, prevailing ignorant mentality. We get so bent out of shape about stereotypes we’re slapped with as a country on the whole, but we’re pretty guilty of turning around and doing the same thing in our own gaping backyard. Thinking Calgary was full of nothing but oil-covered cowboys was ingrained in me by an overarching ignorant cluelessness because we’ve got something of a “who cares” epidemic on our hands. Yeah, the grass is always greener, but we’re behaving as if Canada doesn’t have any god damn grass, our attention for the most part is honed anywhere but here.
As a kid, I saw just about every American state but never went west of Wasaga Beach. There was a sense it wasn’t worthwhile. Aside from a couple schools trips to Ottawa, aka the most boring place on earth, and Montreal if you were lucky, as a kid growing up in Ontario you don’t so much get to see things beyond the wall we’ve built up around ourselves as a self-sufficient bastion of everything worthwhile (j/k!). But really, we’re not privy to Canada as the place we’re from, maybe because it’s just so big. So we get these textbook ideas of the other major cities and all we associate them with is the smell of a shitty old book.
People I know in Toronto seemed wholeheartedly confused that I could be having fun in Calgary, but it’s not like there’s a Matt Damon genius janitor equation to good times: be open to somewhere. Don’t shut down or go full-snarky mode before you get to a place. Be open to the people there, be open to taking their word for it. Driving into the city, in between screaming out of the window of my friend Brett’s car, I asked why people hated on it so hard. His answer was pretty simple, “They are doing the wrong shit.” So quit it, Canada, ‘cause Calgary just wants to party with you.
Follow Katie on Twitter: @wtevs
More Stuff About Canadian Places: