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Will Alberta's cowboys soon bite the dust?

If you want to see Canada’s growing urban-rural divide play out on a cultural level, keep your eye on the fate of the annual Stampede Rodeo and Rangeland Derby, currently under way in Canada’s fourth-largest city and a canary in the coal mine of social change.

Recent predictions forecast that Calgary, which has doubled in size in 30 years to 1.1 million residents, will again more than double over the course of two generations to 2.5 million by 2050. My grandchildren’s generation will live in a city roughly the same size as the Toronto of 2001, and with a similar demographic texture.

How Calgary, which is already a modern urban environment, can expect to retain the visible expressions – ridin’, ropin’, wrasslin’ and wranglin’ – that celebrate its unique cultural roots in what will become an über-urban culture is a question that should dominate its civic conversation. But while most North American cities would kill for an identifying brand as robust as the Stampede, Calgary’s elite is once again seeking to “rebrand” the city’s image into something assumedly more modern.

Calgary’s development plans call for the importation of an additional 40,000 to 50,000 residents within its downtown core, creating density levels rivalling those in Manhattan and condo towers that inexplicably overlook the rodeo and chuckwagon competition venue. And while the city’s talent and labour pool has traditionally drawn people from across the country, the baby boom’s extinction-inclined levels of reproduction combined with the increased competitiveness of Saskatchewan and British Columbia means a steadily increasing reliance on new immigrants to sustain Calgary’s economy.

Indeed, as recently as two years ago, while Alberta’s overall population growth continued, the province actually suffered negative interprovincial migration, which means more native-born Canadians were leaving Alberta than coming to it. Population growth is primarily dependent on new births and immigrants, without whom the economy would be grinding to a halt but who have no roots in or connections to a rural Canadian, let alone cowboy, culture.

Inevitably, this will have an impact on the city’s look, feel and sense of itself. Given that immigration is primarily to large urban centres, the gap will grow into a gulf between those cultures and those of rural Alberta and elsewhere in Canada where population levels are relatively stable – or, if you prefer, stagnant. Without the stimulation of economic growth in those areas, which will be increasingly rare as economies shift from the industrial to the technological age, immigrants won’t be drawn to small-town Canada in enough numbers to influence and be influenced by rural traditions and values.

The rural-urban divide, already evident in voting behaviour (Edmonton-Calgary vs. the rest of Alberta; Toronto vs. the rest of Ontario, etc.) is going to grow and grow. And, given that the Stampede is a celebration of profoundly rural roots, its marquee events may end up fighting for survival.

Rodeo has already been forced to adapt to urban sensibilities that a generation ago would barely have been seen as sensible. Calf roping is now referred to as tie-down roping and, even more significantly, it and steer wrestling were eliminated a couple of years ago as events in B.C.’s Cloverdale Rodeo, which is one of Canada’s largest. This followed an incident in which a calf was put down after its leg was broken.

People raised on a farm have a deeply respectful but entirely different view (some would argue far more realistic) of livestock and their connection with humans than do people who live in cities. Downtown and in suburbia, the long-standing philosophical and theological line drawn between humanity and the world’s other creatures grows ever more blurred: When animals are experienced primarily as pets and when food bountifully appears in grocery stores and restaurants without evidence of violence, the death of an animal is a tragedy.

In the rural experience, animals die all the time; the event is neither rare nor does it evoke the same confused emotional response. Simply, it is nature.

Maintaining a common language that can bridge the gap between urban and rural Canada will be among the great challenges of the century and, hopefully the cowboy, the cowgirl, and all for which they stand, do not become its most endangered species.