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Stampede of course…

I’m back! Did anyone miss me? That’s what I thought. Well I missed all of you. It has been a whole two weeks since I have written a blog and let me tell you, it was weird experience. I know I told you a month or so back that when summer arrived I was planning on switching to a every two weeks to recharge the proverbial creative batteries as they say and maybe, just maybe, do some client work. Or take time off. Or both really.

 

And it worked, to a certain extent. I did do more client work. And I did take some time off. Not much, but some. And it was good. But there was a hole. Something was missing. The planning of the writing. The sheer terror when you realize that you have nothing to write about. The sifting through of energy sector nonsense to find the right topic to discuss. The euphoria when the UCP yet again does something totally weird. The relief when the words flow. The laziness which results in never proof-reading your work. The idle google search to find an appropriate picture (who cares about copyrights!). The excitement of sending out the blog. The anticipation for any and all feedback…

 

I missed it! I missed it all! And that two weeks felt like two years. You know what else felt like two years?

 

The time between Calgary Stampedes. You know why? Because it was two years.

 

But it’s on now – last few days in fact. And, controversial or not, I am in the camp that thinks that’s a good thing.

 

Look, I get the COVID calculus here. Our vaccine numbers (1st and 2nd shot) are pretty robust. The economy and the province was going to reopen no matter what. Why shouldn’t the Stampede get its chance as well?

 

I understand there are many people running around saying the sky is going to fall and that we are going to get a raging 4th wave of Delta variant or its line-dancing cousin the Lambada variant, but you know what? We were going to get that anyway. The only way out of the pandemic is herd immunity and vaccinations get us there. Alberta set a target and we are making progress. There are always going to be hesitant, resistant and indifferent people who either won’t or will be slow to get vaccines. Are we now going to shift from lockdowns to protect the collective good to lockdowns to protect the foolish few? I’m vaccinated. My family is. By and large everyone I know is. My extended family is. The Uber driver is. The waiter is. The fry guy is. It’s time to get on with it.

 

The other cohort who is against Stampede is the social justive warrior class who feel that the Stampede organization is some mega-connected political influence machine for the governing UCP and CPC, kind of like the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation in the United States.

 

Sorry folks. Hate to dispel that myth. The Stampede is a not-for-profit that puts on the “Greatest Show on Earth”. It is staffed by dedicated staff that do tremendous things in the community year round and serve as a rallying point for people in the city, province and country. They are dependent on multiple levels of government for support and thus need to be apolitical. They will have a disproportionate amount of conservative types on their board because that’s the demographic of the Calgary business community, but that is counter-balanced by staff and board representation from city council. They may have some outsized influence, but that’s because they own a big shwack of land, smack dab in prime city real estate and, well, did I mention the Greatest Show on Earth?

 

But yeah, I agree. Politicians do fundraise around it. But what politician wouldn’t? High profile event, lots of people, flip some pancakes, 10 second soundbite, move on. It’s a politician’s dream. The moral high ground certainly didn’t stop the NDP from having events and fundraising. Look – politics is a voluntary sport. If you don’t like it, don’t play.

 

Others are incensed about small businesses that had to close and are struggling so why should Stampede go. That makes zero sense to me. Small businesses thrive on crowds and active participation. I haven’t seen Calgary this busy in years.

 

Then there’s the people who miss the chuckwagon races this year and aren’t attending because of that. Look. I miss them too. But not enough to be that stick in the mud.

 

But the main story for me around Stampede?  The workers. The community. The organizers. The grass-roots and the volunteers.

 

I’m biased of course, but not blind. Biased because my daughter in the Young Canadians and the Grandstand Show. She backed out of competitive dance two years ago to do this and last year’s cancellation was a gut punch. But she persevered. The Stampede persevered. And as a result of her efforts, the Young Canadians efforts, the Stampede’s efforts, our efforts and your effort by getting vaccinated soon enough so that the economy and the province could open up the show was able to go on.

 

And this week I got to see the results of that (twice so far, one more to come). I got to watch my daughter on the stage, living her dream and for that I say thanks to all of you for allowing that to happen. It means a lot.

 

And an important part of that is a bit of this return to normal. I mean we even went to a party. It was a bit awkward. People weren’t 100% sure how they were supposed to act. There were weird handshake pantomimes and fumbly hugs, but there were also a lot of smiles and it was really quite cathartic.

 

I don’t know how other cities are going to open up. Montreal had their monumental (and three wins short) Stanley Cup run, which brought the city out of it COVID haze. Toronto is going to get the Jays back. Other Canadian cities will get the CFL. We had Stampede.

 

And I think that’s OK.

 

And in honour of that, I am re-upping my annual “Ode to Stampede” to end this week’s blog. Two weeks from today, I hope to come back with an energy blog. I’m feeling pumped already.

 

Ode to Stampede.

 

One of the both great and (occasionally) annoying things about living and working in Calgary is navigating the annual all-consuming celebration of fun and cowboy hats that is the Calgary Stampede. Whether it’s surviving double-deep-fried scorpions coated in Oreo batter, boiled corn rolled in ground-up spicy Cheetos, mainlining mini-donuts or running the gauntlet of corporate gatherings, Stampede is a unique event in our city.

 

How unique? Well it’s got its own action verb and language – that’s pretty unique.

 

“Have you been stampeding yet?”  “Sure have, we were at the chucks the other day and then were given ‘er at Ranchman’s (sadness) for a bit. Maybe the grounds on the weekend for the grandstand and plan on hitting the Stomp at the end of the week.” What?

 

 

In addition to being a well-known international tourist attraction, the Calgary Stampede is also a combination of rite of passage and a (mud-spattered) window into how the local economy is doing. It’s both a lagging and leading indicator of the mood of the city and province’s business community, more specifically the energy sector.

 

 

In boom times, the Stampede celebrations tend to be lavish, garish and quite often over the top – a true bacchanalian homage to the excesses that everyone associates with the energy sector.

 

In down years, the mood is decidedly somber, with many low key events. The focus is on restraint and charitable contributions and many of the invitations (even the emailed ones!) will be in black and white.

 

In between, in what I will call the “transition years”, the party struggles to find its footing. And quite often it rains.

 

Added into the mix is a whole kabuki theatre sideshow of municipal, provincial and federal politicians and leaders of national and provincial parties all vying for the attention of the media and public at large by trying to prove their cowboy bonafides by flipping an endless parade of pancakes, exposing for all to see their astonishingly poor fashion choices and delivering tired political messages in a cowboy metaphor infused version of a western drawl.

 

Seriously though, it just wouldn’t be Stampede without some federal Liberal controversy or another stiff and awkwardly dressed conservative flipping pancakes and posing for pictures with some children and First Nations people (all in one if possible!) before dashing off to have important closed door conversations with who knows who about whatever. Although interestingly, most politicians fail to grasp that not much gets done during Stampede except parties and that the person they are talking to is most likely on their way to getting drunk or is still that way from the night before.

 

At any rate, no amount of politicians flitting around, hosting breakfasts, building up or tearing down the economy and buying boots (seriously, is there anything more annoying than politicians doing their photo op boot purchases and sticking on their market study determined cowboy look?) can change the reality on the ground. The midway, the parties, the attendance, the rodeo, the chuckwagon races, the tarps for sale on the chuckwagons, the grandstand show – these all tell us what may or may not be going on.

 

So what is this year’s Stampede telling us?

 

Well, with an active Stampede show participant, I have spent more time on the grounds than I normally do so I am actually in a position to comment.

 

First off, despite the COVID fear-mongering and/or “where are the chucks – I’m not going if there’s no chucks” whiners on Twitter, the crowds were overall larger than I anticipated.

 

They are clearly smaller than in previous years, and the grounds have less stuff in the same amount f space, but all the usual stuff is happening, just on a smaller scale.

 

That said, early on it did feel a little restrained and lacked direction and cohesion. The two Grandstand shows I have attended so far had less crowds than normal (missing those damn chucks!) but the enthusiasm level was there and what was lacking in chuckwagon racing was more than made up for in fireworks.

 

I spent some time walking the midway and sampling a disproportionate amount of fried food, but I didn’t get that rush of excitement or buzz that I typically do when confronted with poutine, chicken wings and a pickle popsicle. Even the foot and half long corn dog seemed forced. At times it felt like everyone was there, but they were going through the motions because they had to, hoping for something a little better to come along. Or maybe it was because it was so damn hot!

 

Worthy of note, the prices were high – inflation was readily apparent in costs for everything pretty much across the board. I suspect some of that is to offset the largely free admission to the grounds (if you couldn’t get in free you weren’t really trying) but $25 for a turkey leg seems out of reach for your average teenager or family of four.

 

Speaking of teenagers, holy freeholy Batman. If the adult population wasn’t there is volume, the teen population more than made up for it. Maybe they were always there and I just didn’t notice because there were so many other people the blended in, but it was impressive. Kids clearly were bursting at the seams to get out and do “something” after their school year from hell and the Stampede ha provided a much needed outdoor, social release of stress.

 

Worthy of note as well on top of the age demographic of the attendees is the decidedly multicultural makeup of the attendees with pretty much all of Calgary’s ethnic communities well represented on both the grounds and the grandstand.

 

As it regards masks? I’d say about 10%.

 

Politicians? I’m happy to report a zero count on that front. This might have something to do with the very visible police presence throughout the grounds.

 

It’s hard to get a solid read on what is happening, it really felt like it could go either way. A mixed bag as they say.

 

Which I guess is kind of where the Alberta economy currently sits. And the Stampede barometer is sending mixed messages.

 

Politically we are at a cross-roads. Alberta has tossed the NDP to the side and was banking on the UCP to lead it to the promised land. But the pandemic has thrown everything up in the air and a series of fundamental missteps has shaken the confidence of Albertans in the ability of Jason Kenney and the UCP to actually manage the province properly. Energy investments gone awry, battles with essential service providers and a self-serving and cynical approach to caucus is, what is the polite way to put this, not sitting well with a lot of people who aren’t part of the inner sanctum. The reinstatement of numerous MLAs who got the boot during Alohagate is particularly hypocritical and self-serving – political memories are longer than six months and no amount of Best Summer EverTM hats is going to cover that up.

 

 

On the federal side we have a Liberal government already running for re-election in October and a conservative party that is in the process of self-destructing and headed for third party status (not saying this is a good thing, but it is a thing).

 

Even municipal politics is a mixed bag of weirdness. We are going to have a new mayor in Calgary and of the 20 announced candidates, a majority are what can best be described as fringe. If my parody candidate www.rogerbforyyc.com was actually a legitimate participant, I suspect we could finish at least 4th. Mixed into this year’s municipal election is the Kenney referenda on such important topics as equalization and daylight savings time, plus a vote on fluoridation and the senate election for seats that are appointed for life and only conservatives stand for. Clearly the UCP are stacking the ballot to get conservatives out and have their preferred candidates get voted in. Did I mention cynical partisanship already?

 

On the energy side, we’ve got a commodity market that is somewhat adrift – a Goldilocks scenario that is neither too hot nor too cold. Rig counts are up, but not enough to pop the champagne. Pockets of the industry are flat out busy while others can’t turn a wheel. The mighty West Texas cash flow incinerator has slowed to a crawl, but OPEC+ infighting is taking some air out of oil prices. Meanwhile Canadian companies are making more money than banks.

 

The TransMountain expansion continues, although forest fires may impact schedules. Line 3 is delayed but moving forward, Keystone XL is done. LNG Canada is underway and construction of it and the Coastal Gas Link pipeline are being fast tracked.

 

It feels like something wants to happen, like the sector wants to bust out and race ahead but it’s still shackled to a lack of confidence in the market turning around for an extended period.

 

It is not unusual to be confronted by this conflicting sense of optimism for the future and pessimism about our prospects, often in the same day, sometimes even in conversation with the same individual!

 

And I feel the mood at this year’s Stampede reflects that – it’s similarly adrift, floating in its bubble of uncertainty, not all of which can be attributed to a pandemic hangover.

 

I am of course in no way suggesting that the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth is anything but – I love Stampede, warts and all. But the reality is, and always has been, that the Stampede is a reflection of the mood of the city and that, as the city gets larger and more “sophisticated”, its personality and that of the Stampede gets more complicated and nuanced. Yet under it all is a manic and barely restrained energy – the dynamic, entrepreneurial, get it done spirit that is Calgary at its finest – just waiting for a spark. An attitude of “enough of this crap, time to get busy.” Layer in a lifting of pandemic restrictions and, well, anything could happen!

 

Meanwhile, as the province has tried to move to a more open stance regarding COVID, so has the business world. While most of the time you rarely get any serious or actual work done during Stampede, this year it has been less play, more work. The phone has been ringing. Conversations have been real. Deals are getting advanced. It’s promising. It’s down to business, headwinds and COVID be damned.

 

So where does this all lead? Well, based on my rather unscientific observations, I feel the city and the energy sector is ready to break out or already has. The starting gun has been fired. As the Rangeland Derby (when there is one) announcers say “And they’re off”.

 

It’s Canadian firms like CNRL stepping up in the oilsands. It’s unconventional basins that rival anything in the US. It’s a political environment that is fluid and dynamic but waking up to the reality that it needs a vibrant Alberta and energy sector to power a lot of the country. It’s young, energetic management teams taking over in the service sector. It’s deals getting done. It’s Calgary shaking off close to 84 months of being downturned, downsized and downtrodden with 16 months of pandemic fear and uncertainty layered onto the tail-end and saying enough is enough. It’s a Stampede that Twitter didn’t want, that our kids needed and that gathered strength and confidence as the week went on, pretty much emblematic of where I see the Calgary and Alberta economy at this particular juncture. It’s a 15 year old teenaged dancer standing on centre stage, chaos behind her, fireworks firing, arms outstretched welcoming the grandstand crowd back to the show.

 

It’s getting better. It really is.

 

And I have a party to get to.

 

See you in two weeks.

 

Yahoo!

 

 

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