Day 995: Little Rivalry On The Prairie

originally published September 21, 2014

Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.

Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.

Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.

But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.

The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading.

These two factions weren’t fond of one another. When the white folks wandered on to the scene – and here it’s important to remember that most of Canada was founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a popular department store chain – they wanted to spread the joys of fur trading to all areas. The Blackfoot wanted none of this, and so Edmonton House became the HBC’s home base in the area. Calgary was founded as an RCMP post, and until the 1880’s it was barely a blip on the map. Then the train came rollin’ in.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was scheduled to swipe the first cross-country railroad through Edmonton, but at the last minute they opted to stick closer to the US border and run through Calgary instead. Immediately Calgary became the bigger city; English and Scottish immigrants poured in, and so did American ranching and farming influence. Edmonton might have drifted into relative irrelevancy were it not for the switch in federal leadership that would inadvertently come to define the political landscape of Alberta (which, it should be noted, still didn’t technically exist yet).

In 1896, Sir Wilfred Laurier bumped the Conservatives out of office, becoming the second Liberal Prime Minister in the nation’s short history. Under Laurier’s reign, two more cross-country railroads were built, both of which picked Edmonton as their primary stop in the area. At the same time, the Liberals altered the immigration laws, which meant that hordes of foreigners landed in Edmonton as their new home. The British folks who dominated Calgary’s populace tended to look down on this fact, seeing Edmonton as an example of the ‘mongrelization’ of the Dominion.

The immigrants tended to support the Liberals, while the stodgy white folks leaned more toward the Conservatives, a tilt that somewhat reflects the political leanings of both cities today. But under Laurier’s watch, another blow was struck against the city in the south.

Edmonton was the bigger city, and it also boasted a massive immigrant population who loved the Liberals. So when it came time to plant the Alberta flag in 1905, Laurier’s Liberal folks naturally picked our city as the capital. That’s okay – Calgary would be redeemed much like Saskatoon had been when Regina was chosen as the capital of Saskatchewan: one city gets the provincial pilot’s seat while the other gets the province’s official university. Right?

Wrong. The University of Alberta was placed in a city south of Edmonton, but it was the city of Strathcona who landed the honor, not Calgary. To give you an idea of the geography, Calgary is about 300 kilometers away. Strathcona was about 100 feet away, just across the North Saskatchewan River. The University was founded in 1908, and by 1912 Strathcona officially merged with Edmonton. Calgary was pissed. Sufficiently pissed to throw the entire province into the trash heap and start their own gig.

And that might have actually happened.

Arthur Sifton (a provincial Liberal) was elected as Alberta’s Premier in 1913, after a campaign filled with snippy political fighting and a case of unfathomable gerrymandering which gave Calgary minimal representation in government. This kicked off a campaign to demand that the federal government – which was now back in Calgary-friendly Conservative hands – to split the province in two and allow southern Alberta to become its own province, with Calgary at the helm.

The British North America Act was still woven into our national constitution at the time, and this Act would have allowed such a provincial split with federal approval, even if Edmonton and the northern contingent were against it. Then World War I happened, and everyone was focused on more important matters. After the war, the political tension softened, and the province turned its attention more toward its rural vs. urban split.

Also, Calgary had something else to focus on by then.

One thing newcomers to this province never need to ask is why Alberta is the most economically stable province in the country. Our economy is built on oil, and it has been for a century. Calgary lucked into the oil game in 1914, when deposits were found in Turner Valley, just 60 km away. The interwar period in Calgary was defined by economic prosperity (though the Great Depression put a bit of a dent in that), as corporate headquarters moved in and the city thrived. Oil was discovered in Leduc, just outside of Edmonton in 1947, but while we quickly climbed the ladder into the heavenly blimp of oil-based economic bliss, we never quite caught up to our rivals down south.

Nowadays, our provincial rivalry is based around sports. As a lifelong fan of the NFL, this rivalry doesn’t mean that much to me, though I have seen its furious teeth gnash at conversations with many of my friends and family. The Calgary Flames have beaten the Oilers 107 times to 98, but then they have never had quite the dynasty as we had in the 1980’s. Also, the Edmonton Eskimos have beaten the Calgary Stampeders 123 games to 93, so we have the edge on the football front.

But in the end, who cares? This province, which could have become the Nebraska of Canada, built on farming and agriculture, boasts two impressive cities with vibrant cultures, young, hip (and very liberal-leaning) mayors and the heart of our country’s negotiable income. Can we put away the antiquated swords and just all get along?

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