For another 365 days, the Calgary Stampede has ridden off into the sunset. It will return. Make no mistake. It is an institution, a part of our Calgary culture that rides in every year on the first Friday of July to spend 10 days reminding everyone, residents and visitors alike, of our wild west roots planted deep into the prairie soil and our cowboy heritage ridin’ free on the range.
And as we don our blue jeans and cowboy hats, with Stampede comes the contradictions and the disparities woven into our social fabric. A man leans against a lamppost too drunk to walk another step. Another vomits on the sidewalk oblivious to the mess he’s making for someone else to clean up. A hundred dollars lets you jump the line-up at Cowboys’ giant beer tent on the Stampede Park if you don’t want to wait the 3 hours to pay the $30 entrance fee the hordes are waiting to pay to gain entrance. Amidst the midway rides and flashing lights, a fight breaks out on Stampede Park and three men are taken to hospital with stab wounds, one of them in serious condition. A car rolls over on a city roadway, alcohol plays a role. A threesome have sex on the street near a favourite downtown Stampede watering hole, and the city is polarized in its response.
And I walk down the street towards my office one morning, stepping over empty beer cans left by late night partiers, listening to the sounds of a live band entertaining the folks who’ve come out to enjoy free pancakes and bacon at the annual Stampede Breakfast kitty-corner to my office building. They are ubiquitous, these Stampede Breakfasts. They appear on every street corner and parking lot throughout the city over the course of the 10 days of Stampede. They speak of community, of people gathering together to share a meal and conversation and good spirits in the morning.
I am enjoying the music as I cross the street towards my office building. My thoughts are on the community-spirit of Stampede when I spy a man lying on the sidewalk. He is oblivious to the noise and frivolity. He is lying silently on his side, eyes closed as I approach.
I kneel down and ask him if I can help.
“Do you want me to call the DOAP team?” I ask. DOAP stands for Downtown Outreach Addictions Program. It is operated by Alpha House and provides mobile assistance to help vulnerable persons in our community get to a safe place.
The man lying on the sidewalk nods his head yes.
While I wait for the team to arrive I try to engage the man in conversation. I want to keep him awake. “What is your name?” I ask.
“Michael” he mumbles. “I want to go to Alpha House,” he adds.
“The DOAP team is on their way,” I tell him.
He looks up at me. His eyes are dark, red-lined. He licks his lips.
“Let me die,” he says.
My heart stops for a moment. I feel his pain. His sorrow. His despair.
“I can’t,” I tell him.
“Let me die,” he repeats.
And I am saddened.
His roots are buried deep into the prairie soils. His roots are native to the wide open plains that surround our city. They run deeper than the cowboy trails that brought white settlers westward long ago paving over centuries of First Nations roaming proud and strong and free on these lands.
He lies on the hard, cold concrete that covers the lands where once his forbears rode free and pleads with a stranger to let him die.
And on the other corner, country and western music blares, bacon sizzles on the grill and sweet maple syrup runs freely onto pancakes as Stampede revellers enjoy breakfast in the sun.
“This land is my land, this land is your land.”
And no where in these lands is there a place for Michael to find a road back to his roots. Buried beneath generations of cultural genocide precipitated by white man’s journey across these lands we call home, he has lost himself to a past he cannot remember and does not dare to see.
Yahoo! Stampede has come to town reminding us of our heritage. For 10 days, cowboys and cowgirls roam the streets partaking of the wild west parties and celebrations of our past. Forgotten are the buffalo ranging free and warriors riding proud and strong who fell beneath the weight of our desire to own the lands they once roamed free.
There was a man lying on the street. He reminded me that not all our history is built on the proud conquest of the wild west. It is also built on the conquering of the people who once claimed this land as their land.