Photo: Bryon Lippincott/flickr

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The Calgary Stampede, according to our national broadcaster, is “a key cultural and political event in Alberta.”

Alas, it is hard to deny this claim.

For one thing, it is the weeklong annual festival at which office-bound politicians from all across this great land gather in the former Cowtown wearing outlandish cowboy hats while teetering on Cuban-heeled, pointy-toed boots, with spurs a-jingling and dinner-plate-sized shiny buckles often obscured by expansive tummies.

These pale specimens are in Cowtown, officially, to pay obeisance to the manly arts of the Old West, such as cow poking. In reality, though, they are there to bow down before the oil and agri-business bazillionaires who sit on the Stampede Board, whence they offer a rotating sampling of the oligarchical power of Canada’s New West.

Normally speaking, what the Board says goes, both at the Stampede and in the city and province that host it. Although I suppose that is not an absolute certainty under the NDP, which must make everyone just the tiniest bit nervous this year.

Still, don’t get your hopes up too much.

Politicians who make the pilgrimage looking exquisitely uncomfortable atop a docile old nag or who put their 45.5-litre hat on backwards — hint, the little ribbon inside the hatband goes at the back — will be mocked, ruthlessly, by those who know better, and even some who don’t.

The events of the past couple of years, however, also suggest that there is a serious and competitive side to the political aspect of Stampeding, an indication that in this age of national advertising, the politician who looks the most fashionably butch in a white Resistol™ hat made of Panama straw and the slimmest fitting jeans will soon be elected prime minister.

What’s delightful about this is that while they provide the lights, the platform, and the bad attitude, there’s precious little the Stampede Board and the other Calgary power brokers can do to determine which dude or dudette the unreliable voters of Toronto, Vancouver or Quebec City will decide looks the best in high heels and tight jeans and therefore deserves their support … and no matter what they think, it’s never going to be Stephen Harper!

Unfortunately, it is probably also true the Stampede is a key Alberta cultural event as well.

It is the culture of the event that likely explains the offensive posters that came to light last weekend — bespeaking an attitude about gender and status that, sad to say, is nothing new on the wrong side of the class divide of the Stampede Grounds, as everyone who has been there knows.

In defence of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” however, it’s unlikely anything quite that crass would have been officially endorsed by the Stampede.

Then there’s the perennial matter of animal cruelty, which is an officially approved  traditional Stampede specialty.

Still, the 2016 Stampede — or, as we used to call it when I was a humble cub reporter at the Calgary Herald, which covered the event like the morning dew, the Stoopede — had gone four days as of last night without a horse being killed in a so-called chuckwagon race. (By the way, they aren’t really chuckwagons.)

This seems little short of a miracle, but perhaps it really is the product of the enhanced safety measures the Stampede says it has put in place for the event this year. We shall see.

As has been said in this space before, horses die pointlessly most years for the entertainment of the humans who pack the Stampede grounds to witness the thundering excitement of the races. And, in truth, they are exciting.

Unlike other rodeo sports, which may be cruel in the sense they’re uncomfortable for the dumb beasts involved, chuckwagon races are particularly dangerous for horses because of the physical nature of the creatures themselves and the tactics used by wagon drivers to cut off competing rigs. The resulting spills are thrilling — and usually deadly for a few of the animals.

People who protest this are perennially dismissed as sissies and do-gooders. Professional chuckwagon racers inevitably say how very, very sad they are when a horse dies. The deaths are ignored by the Stampede’s organizers, and by pretty well everyone in political Alberta.

Lengthy commentaries that appear after a horse is put down typically explain that horses love to run, and if they could talk would surely tell us they’re good with the risk of being whipped around the track for the entertainment of the crowd. What’s more, there will also be some sharply angry comments about how the Stampede is all about the cowboy’s trade, it’s a vital part of our western culture, and people who don’t like it can go to blazes, yadda-yadda.

As has also been said here before, this is mostly baloney, particularly the bit about ropin’ and ridin’ having very much to do with the modern practice of agriculture.

Still, perhaps the placement of the infield barrels and firmer turf beside the inside rail really will make the chuckwagon races safer this time. One certainly hopes so.

Just remember that nothing is likely change no matter what because, regardless of who is in power in Edmonton, there aren’t very many politicians in Alberta inclined to stand up to the mighty Stampede Board.

And if we understand that, we begin to understand the truly intimate relationship of the Stampede to the politics and culture of Alberta.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Bryon Lippincott/flickr

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David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...