The Western Migration

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

A couple of political events in Calgary and Alberta opened some curtains in the mist of some lost memories this week. That can be beneficial because it makes me think of how we got to where we are today, certain events on the development of Calgary and some of the irony generated by our past. The first was the issue over Calgary’s planned transit expansion, the Green Line and the second is the Alberta governments new labour law, Bill 9. Both of them stirred up childhood memories.

We are experiencing some elements in our current societal discourse regarding diversity and reacting like it’s something new. ALERT, it isn’t. My fathers legacy burrowed deep in the world of the Mennonite faith. His ancestors had migrated to Canada in the late 18th century to avoid the religious persecution Mennonites were experiencing in many European countries of that time. With him came a diversity of faith. Large sectors of Mennonites settled to farm in what would eventually become Manitoba following Confederation.

Mennonites are pacifists and live almost communally. They are tight knit and dedicated to self sustainability. They were into environmental protection before anyone even knew what environmental threats were. This was reflected in their farming techniques, rotating crops, field left seasonally fallow and planting crops to meet the needs of the soil. This wasn’t a conscience plan, it was just common sense farming.

When WW2 came along many of my fathers generation of the Mennonite faith joined the Canadian military. They were young and they felt they owed the country that allowed their fore-fathers an opportunity to live a safe, unthreatened life. Unfortunately the price, as ideological pacifist, was excommunication from the Church. As the new generation of Mennonites, their belief in Canada as a nation, the very country that had offered them safe harbour, was a belief worth risking excommunication over. They left the farms, took up arms and the rest is history.

My father, upon on his return from the war, began dealing with war related health issues before beginning a new life off the farm. He began with my mother in a small rural Manitoba town and eventually found himself in Winnipeg driving street car. Electric vehicles driven on tracks and power through trolley wires. Again “electric” vehicles ahead of their time.

But the lure of the west was growing. For numerous reasons the need to move westward was decided over 60 years ago for my parents and the offer of a driving position with Calgary Transit just sweetened the deal. So started the transition to what became my home city, Calgary.

Calgary Transit circa 1960

Calgary, like dad’s family, was growing. A position with Calgary Transit was a “union” position which offered some security to my father. A security he needed with a growing family and a son (me) who was a polio survivor. The Alberta Children’s Hospital was offering services to polio kids so there was no hesitation when the opportunity arose. With the assurance of employment and health care for his son (this was long before universal healthcare) he packed up the family in the mid 50’s and made the westward move to Calgary. When we arrived Calgary was just shy of 200,000 and a good number of those were European immigrants displaced by the war. There was no doubt Calgary was diverse but far from the shining beacon of success it is recognized as it is now.

One of my first memories of Calgary was sitting on dads shoulders as he walked picket in 1958. The transit workers had taken strike action due to the City’s reticence in renewing a union contract (I now refer back to the current situation with the Alberta governments position over Bill 9). Part of the issue with the contract was the extension of transit routes. At that time the northern most point for transit service ended at Northmount Drive and 4th Street NW (Mount Pleasant/Killarney). The Thorncliff/Elbow Drive routed ended at Northmount Drive and Centre Street. Thorncliff was the northern most part of the City at the time. How boundaries have changed!

My point here is Calgary has a long history of being progressive and diverse. The diversity was mainly European and it existed. The Kensington area was Little Greek Town, Bridgeland was little Italy, Tuxedo was German Town and Thorncliff/Highwood was basically prairie farmers who had decided to move west. Calgary was the stopping point and the expansion began to happen. With the value of natural resources taking off in the mid 60’s the growth explosion happened. By 1980 Calgary had almost tripled in size (to almost 600,000) but the driving group-think was still the WW2 veterans. The Baby-boomers were just coming into their own.

Today I watched the City Council meeting listening to arguments and debates that mirrored many of the past issues this City has faced. We have had that “Green Line” transit argument in the past except it involved extending trolley lines for electric buses but resulted in gas powered vehicles because of the new found belief in the natural resource community. We have had that same argument over tax relief by cutting services, services that are crucial tools to quality of life issues. That same quality of life that brought thousands of immigrants to Calgary over the past fifty years.

Palliser Hotel downtown Calgary 1964

While some may think todays Council meetings are steps backwards (in my opinion they are) others frame it as protecting the future. I see it as a Council that either doesn’t recognize their history or have chosen to ignore it. Times are changing, again, and how politics works needs to change as well. What worked in the 60’s wasn’t so hot in the 80’s. At the same time we have also outgrown what was working in the 80’s. Time for a rethink over how we move forward and how we do business. Most of the people our politicians are playing to are dying off (myself included). It’s time to focus on the policy makers of tomorrow and what will work for them. Time for change…

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