CALGARY – Water-weary Calgarians put aside their mops and flood gear Friday to show visitors what they do best — throw one heck of a party.
Thousands of people lined what just two weeks ago were the submerged streets of the city’s downtown to watch the colourful, noisy parade that kicks off the Calgary Stampede.
Marching bands, floats and lots and lots of horses wound their way along the parade route under a sunny sky. Stampede officials say it has never rained during a parade.
Canada’s celebrity astronaut Chris Hadfield, riding a horse named Jag, was the parade marshal.
“This is where every Canadian should be today. This is a city celebrating both its history and its culture, but also its strength through adversity, so this is a great place to be,” the cosmic cowboy said.
Hadfield, who retired this week, was approached by several fans while he sat aboard his steed. He shook hands and signed autographs.
The parade, marking the start of the 101st Stampede, kicked off with fireworks as fired-up fans in cowboy hats, boots and jeans yahooed. Gumboots gave way to cowboy boots as many in the crowd decked themselves out in their once-a-year western duds.
A special cheer was reserved for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
“I think people are really looking for an opportunity to celebrate and to really focus on what the spirit of our city and our community is,” Nenshi said.
“I’ve certainly felt a pent-up excitement. I thought that last year’s centennial Stampede could not be beat, but I feel like Stampede 101 is going to be different and probably even better.”
Premier Alison Redford said she walked part of the parade route in reverse Friday morning.
“I’m seeing people who have been impacted, who have lost their houses, people who have been volunteering, just being here celebrating,” she said.
“I’ve thought about the word ‘celebrating’ which is a tough word right now, because there are still parts of the province that are moving through the response period.
“But it is important for us to come together as a community and I think this is what it’s all about.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen — both in black cowboy hats — had a front-row seat along the route.
“Today, Calgary celebrates the opening of The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, which showcases the remarkable western pioneer spirit, traditions and values that have contributed so much to making Canada the great nation it is today,” Harper said in a statement.
“This year in particular, the Stampede also celebrates the resilience, strength and pride of those Albertans who are recovering from the devastating floods in the region.”
The parade paid special tribute to first responders who kept citizens safe in the early days of the record flooding.
“Stampede is iconic. I think it would be very unfortunate for the city and maybe would even break the spirit of the city to a certain degree if we had to say the 101st Stampede couldn’t go forward,” said Bruce Burrell, director of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.
“For 100 years this has been the tradition in the city. There’s been other floods during that period of time and this event has always gone on.”
More than 75,000 Calgarians — along with residents of many communities throughout southern Alberta — had to leave their homes when water from raging rivers rose June 20.
Many of those people still have a tough row to hoe. Some had wondered if the annual rodeo, exhibition and music festival could be put together in just two weeks.
Some events had to be relocated and some headlining concerts at the badly damaged Saddledome had to be scrubbed, but organizers took on the mantra of the Stampede’s president, who promised the event would proceed “come hell or high water.”
That’s now the motto emblazoned across black T-shirts seen everywhere in the city, even on the back of the popular mayor.
“I think it’s awesome. I think it’s really, really cool the city pulled together and was able to pull it off to boost morale for the rest of the city,” said Danielle LeBlanc who was attending her first Stampede parade.
Not everyone thought that the Stampede should have gone ahead, though.
“It’s impressive that they did this, but I still think that the efforts could have gone to other places,” said a woman who would only give her name as Kelly. She brought her three-year-old daughter Amberdeen to watch the parade.
“There’s still 9,000 people without homes. To throw a big party just seems a little insensitive.”
Nenshi said the city had nothing to do with getting the Stampede going and no resources were diverted to pump water out of the soaked rodeo infield or clean up the grounds.
“The Stampede didn’t call upon anything from the city. As a matter of fact, they managed to get their excavation done so quickly at Stampede park they freed up their own earth-moving equipment for the rest of the city which was pretty awesome.”
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is expected to make his own contribution to cleaning up after the floods when he comes to Alberta for the Stampede.
“I know what I am going to see is a resilient city and province filled with people celebrating Stampede and not letting a little muddy water get them down,” he said while visiting Regina on Friday.
“But at the same time, I also know there’s an awful lot of work to do and Calgarians and Albertans are committed to that. And I’m actually going to spend Sunday afternoon far from the media eye, helping out with a large number of local Liberals cleaning up some of the flood damaged areas because that’s the kind of work that we need to do.”
The Stampede runs until July 14.