Calgary: The Pioneer Spirit Lives on!

“I am uncharacteristically speechless. Just had a quiet walk in Rideau. Stories that reduced me to tears but mostly filled me with joy.”  These are the words from a tweet of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi as he visited the upscale community of Rideau shortly after the floodwaters began to recede. Like all Calgarians, he was shocked at the destruction caused by our beloved and usually benign Bow and Elbow Rivers. At the same time, he was overjoyed by the amazing community spirit that erupted as soon as there was a call for volunteers to help with the cleanup. As the water receded, the community’s pent up demand to help burst forth. 

One call for 600 volunteers resulted in 5,000 people showing up so jobs for another 1,400 people were quickly found with 3,000 going home disappointed they couldn’t help.  Children set up lemonade stands with proceeds going to help those impacted by the flood.  Food Trucks immediately mobilized and went to the communities hardest hit, giving away free food to volunteers and evacuated families returning to their homes filled with water and mud.  Strangers just showed up on the muddiest streets asking, “How can I help!”

Mayor Nenshi became a hero during the floods, much like Rudy Giuliani the  NYC mayor did during the World Trade Centre disaster.  He was our superman, as were many of the Alderman who worked tirelessly help their constituents find help.  Calgary is very fortunate to have a very dedicated and caring City Council. 

While some might find this a strange phenomenon in our 21st century world of urban alienation where NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard) and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) are often cited manifestations of our urban self-centerness. However, a strong underlying sense of community is alive and well in “cowtown” and I expect in many other cities too.  When in need, neighbours come together to help each other be it the Goderich Tornado (2011), Slave Lake Fire (2011) or the Halifax Hurricane (2003) or now the Calgary Flood.  When there is no need, we mind our own business and get on with our lives, which often doesn’t include the neighbours.  

While not always evident in the day-to-day comings and goings of suburbanites with their attached garages and six-foot fences or those in the cookie-cutter downtown high-rise condos, Calgarians still do, at their core, have a strong sense of community.  It doesn’t hurt either that Calgarians live in small communities (most less than 10,000 people), each with its own name and identity.  In many ways, Calgary is not a city as much it is a collective of small towns.

Everyone pitched in to help with the clean up - young and old.  A couple of women in their 80s drove up to one of these many help centres and said we are too old to help with the clean up so we baked muffins.  Everyone did their part.  

Yes it is part our pioneer cultural base that everyone was expected to work hard and look after themselves.  However, if someone is truly in need, the community does come together and look after them. Calgary’s almost impromptu “flood-raising” efforts are a reminder of our prairie past when “barn raising” events were very common with neighbours getting together to help a family build or rebuild a barn.  Calgary’s caring culture is not totally restricted to emergencies, every year the citizens and corporations of Calgary donate significantly more per capita to United Way than any other city in Canada, maybe in North America.  Simply put, Calgarians care about their neighbour’s welfare; it just manifests itself differently at different times. 

It was a dirty job but someone had to do it.  Like the pioneers a hundred years ago, Calgarians grabbed their boots and got the job done.  It was a massive job, but there was a stampede of volunteers.  

Calgary’s annual “reminder” of our sense of community is the Calgary Stampede. It is a time when young and old, rich and poor come together to celebrate - neighbourhood pancake breakfasts, square dancing in the streets of downtown or watching the rodeo or chucks together.  It is more than just another signature festival, or a “pretty face” to attract tourists it is a reminder that the heart and soul of this city is its sense of community. It is fitting that the first flood recovery decision made was that the Stampede 2013 must go on.

On June 24, just three days after the flood, Stampede President Bob Thompson announced "We have pumped millions of gallons of water from our facilities, scraped the mud from our tarmac, commenced the cleanup of our Park, all to welcome guests from around the world. Last year the theme of our centennial was 'We are greatest together.' A year later this motto could not be more true! We are greatest together. We will be hosting the greatest outdoor show on earth, come hell or high water.

Throughout our entire history we have never cancelled a show, despite two wars and a Great Depression – 2013 will be no exception."

That was all Calgarians needed to hear.  The “come Hell or high water” became the rallying call for the entire city to cleanup our mess - not just the Stampede grounds, but all the flooded communities - and get on with our lives. 

This is no small task given the flood happened exactly two weeks just 14 days before the Stampede Parade kick off.  The Stampede Grounds and the surrounding communities were the most heavily damaged by the floods and at the time were still under water.  However, once the community’s “can do attitude” was ignited, a second flood occurred, a flood of tens of thousands of volunteers came forth to help with the cleanup. 

Calgary’s “pioneer spirit” lives on even as the city become more and more cosmopolitan. 

Over 50,000 of these t-shirts were sold in the first week.  A politically correct version for kids was also printed i.e. come heck or highwater.  

Throughout the "state of emergency" Calgarians kept their sense of humour.  

If you like this blog you might like: Calgary Flood 2013: Disaster Meets Community