Photograph Courtesy Calgary Exhibition &Stampede Archives
Getting up with the roosters, pulling on cowboy boots, and dusting off hats retrieved from the back of the closet – for thousands of people, these rituals spell the start of the annual pilgrimage to downtown Calgary to experience the parade that kicks off the annual 10-day Stampede. Every year, weather is one of the biggest question marks for parade day. Fortunately, Calgarians are accustomed to dressing for any weather, even if parkas and blankets must join the boots and hats as part of their outfits.
Snagging a prime curb location – preferably the same spot every year – is one of the goals of a successful parade expedition. This determination to secure a clear view of the parade is a tradition. In the early days, parade goers sat on wooden boxes bought for 10¢ from the Chinese-owned grocery stores on 7 th Avenue. Some sat on the roofs of buildings overlooking the route or even climbed telephone poles for bird’s-eye views.
Every year, people get downtown earlier and earlier. Some will even camp out the night before if they are the designated placeholders for a large group, or they’ll lock lawn chairs to lampposts to reserve their families’ spots. Staking out one’s territory is a tradition not easily forsaken, in spite of the recent availability of reserved bleacher seats.
The first parades in Calgary were associated with the exhibitions held in the early 1900s and were historical pageants on a grand scale. Then as now, the parade was synonymous with the Exhibition and Stampede experience – many would even say their enjoyment of the festival today would be incomplete without it.
The modern parade is a two-hour celebration of the Stampede and its place in the city. Its unique western theme permeates the city. About 350,000 spectators line the route, and a Canadian television audience of 2 million is joined by countless millions more viewers around the globe, courtesy of numerous international media outlets. Of all the world’s parades, the Rose Bowl is the only one larger than the Stampede’s. On parade morning, most downtown offices and businesses are closed, and people spill onto the streets to celebrate the beginning of another Calgary Stampede.
The Stampede parade has always provided tremendous free entertainment. In its modern iteration, the pre-parade entertainment – including dancers of all kinds and nationalities, the Stampede’s Band of Outriders, martial arts experts, and magicians – warms up the crowd.
To help the police maintain the safety of the crowd and the parade participants, deputized volunteer marshals are stationed along the route. Competing informally to work on the best-behaved block, many volunteers ask for the same assignment year after year, having developed a rapport with the “regulars.” As he choreographs his section’s “yahoos,” volunteer Basil Nobbs, a 73-year-old former Royal Marine, learns to count “1, 2, 3” in Russian, Taiwanese, and Chinese. Such multicultural community building is another ritual, another Stampede tradition.
At precisely 8:55 a.m., the warmed-up and now wide-awake crowd hears the familiar sound of a marching band. The award-winning Calgary Stampede Showband has led the parade since 1971, its members attired in red and white uniforms.
In the distance is the tell-tale clip-clop of the first horses. In the early days, there were thousands of horses in the much-anticipated parades. This focus on the horse has continued, with about 850 “parade-broke’ horses in the spectacle in an average year. And right behind each entry is the necessary clean-up crew.
Coming up next? Many more bands and dozens of floats, with entries varying from year to year. Cowboys and spacemen. Miniature donkeys and chuckwagons. Tiny Shriner airplanes. Politicians and clowns. Water guns and princesses. Pipe bands and dancing music. Members of the Treaty 7 First Nations dressed in traditional regalia, their horses with beaded adornments as beautiful as their riders’.
A glittering display … and the participants know it. The proud paraders brim with characteristic western friendliness and find it surprisingly easy to connect with celebrants sharing their spirit on these city streets.
The parade is the annual ceremonial kickoff to a community celebration that takes back the west for 10 days every July.
By 1912, Calgary had a track record of producing inspiring parades for its Exhibitions. Calgary’s population may have been only about 60,000 at the time, but more than 75,000 enthusiastic spectators lined the streets on a warm and sunny September 2 to watch the “Grandest Pageant of All History” – the parade that kicked off Guy Weadick’s first Stampede. A welcome arch was erected on Centre Street between 8 th and 9 th Avenues to greet the governor general and his wife. The parade was filmed and shown all over the world, setting the standard for legendary Stampede parades.
Weadick’s parade portrayed the history of the west in a chronological tableau format featuring sections of missionaries and Hudson’s Bay traders in Red River carts, old-time whiskey traders, North-West Mounted Police veterans from 1874 (labeled the “old Mounties”), cowboys and cattlemen, stagecoaches and settlers, with the young “citizens of the future” bringing up the rear.
Leading the way, almost 2,000 native people in full ceremonial dress created one of the parade’s most impressive entries. They had come to participate in the parade and the Rodeo, to camp and visit and celebrate.
The governor general of Canada and his family stayed with the Lougheed family and were invited to ride in their host’s car. In the lead section was Johnny Mitchell, the first mayor to wear a five-gallon Stetson and start Calgarians’ tradition of dressing western. He was no cowboy, but he knew his city and how deeply rooted the area’s western heritage was.
The Stampede parade has seen some interesting traditions come and go, while some have endured.
Photograph Courtesy Calgary Exhibition &
The Stampede parade is the result of the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who devote thousands of hours to the signature event to bring it to fruition. Hundreds of potential entries are evaluated and selections made, hours of meetings determine the myriad details that must be communicated. At last the entries are placed in their final order and the parade is ready to go. A barbecue for volunteers and participants the night before the parade is the committee’s way of saying thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to bring it all together.
On parade day, the committee chairman weaves through the parade in his golf cart, politely but firmly making sure all is going well with participants and spectators and ensuring that no parade crashers ruin the fun for everyone else. The chairman and his marshals also keep their eye out for skittish horses or young children, who might dash unexpectedly onto the parade route.
Less than an hour after the parade is completed, the volunteer committee meets over lunch for a quick evaluation. The 100-plus member group, which includes generations of the same families, reviews the morning and proposes ideas to make the parade better next year.
Celebrating the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede (pp. 9-17)
By Joan Dixon and Tracey Read
Text copyright 2005 © Joan Dixon and Calgary Exhibition & Stampede