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Calgary celebrates its roots as a global oil capital

For a week every year, Calgary, the city at the heart of Canada’s oil patch, pays homage to its wild west roots. Shaun Polczer dons his Stetson and joins the party

It’s close to midnight at Calgary’s Palace Theatre, but the party is just getting started.

The so-called “First Rowdy”, is the unofficial kick-off to a week of boozy celebrations coinciding with the Calgary Stampede rodeo, an annual summer festival tapping the cowboy culture and frontier past of an emerging global oil capital.

Even as other oil-producing regions of the world struggle with wars, rumours of wars and volatile oil markets, Calgarians are partying like it’s 1912 - the year the Stampede officially began. With its oil production poised to double to 6.2 million barrels per day (b/d) by 2030, it has plenty to celebrate.

A packed house of oil-company executives, investment bankers and invited guests are swaying to the sounds of a country rock band flown in from California. Libations are flowing and food stations are filled with heaps of prime rib, sushi and poutine – a French Canadian dish of fries and cheese curds drenched in gravy.

For more than a decade, the invitation-only bash has been one the hottest tickets in town, guaranteeing entry into the upper crust of Calgary’s oil elite.

The host of this lavish extravaganza is FirstEnergy Capital, a Calgary-based investment bank that has raised more than C$35 billion ($34.3bn) in oil-company financings since its inception in 1993. In 2005 it was partly acquired by France’s Société Générale to jointly market oil and gas securities in Canada and Europe.

FirstEnergy founder Brett Wilson is a local and national celebrity for his role on Dragon’s Den, the venture-capital reality show. His scraggy beard, wild hair and penchant for blue jeans are the new face of Alberta’s oil patch.

He has since stepped back from both the television series and the chairman’s role to concentrate on philanthropic causes, and First Rowdy is a fundraiser for his favourite charities. The price of admission is a donation and Wilson holds court in the theatre balcony while FirstEnergy employees in emblazoned cowboy shirts mingle with guests and collect cheques.

It’s a worthy cause, but a symbol, too, of the intermingling of oil and money in Calgary that comes together for 10 days in July.

For the locals, “stampede” is all at once a noun, a verb and an adjective. But it is also a vaguely undefinable term synonymous with Calgary, its distinctly western persona and its aspirations to become the economic engine of Canada.

Thanks to oil, Calgary has been transformed from an agrarian backwater into one of Canada’s most modern - and richest - cities. The epicentre lies on the banks of the Bow River, where the rodeo has been held for the past 100 years.

After all that time, others are starting to take notice. More than 300,000 visitors packed the city’s streets to take in the official parade, which was broadcast live on national television. In 2011, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge were feted as honorary parade marshals, which was seen as an affirmation of the city’s coming of age.

Back at the Palace Theatre, the party continues into the small hours, only to be taken up as dawn breaks over dozens of traditional Stampede breakfasts - servings of pancakes, bitter coffee and vodka-laced orange juice. Those are essential events for celebrities and politicians to show off their western credentials.

However, there’s an unwritten protocol that must be followed. Neckties are forbidden and the official dress code of hats, belts and boots is strictly enforced. Black hats are for the bad guys; dignitaries and VIPs are always accorded white.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, once chided for his poor choice of black hat and “cow-poke” garb, arrived appropriately attired in bolo and white Stetson for meetings with Alberta premier Alison Redford. The content of the discussions was not disclosed, but energy and oil were undoubtedly on the agenda: Redford just returned from a trade visit to China, an enthusiastic investor in Alberta’s oil patch.

Harper was followed by Liberal politician Justin Trudeau, the son of a former prime minister. Trudeau fils is widely seen as heir-apparent to his father’s old party. With his good looks, he made the appropriate impression by dishing up pancakes in a red plaid shirt and a pair of pointy-toed boots.

It was pointed PR move to step out of the shadow of his father, whose anti-industry energy policies remain a bone of contention in Calgary more than 25 years after they were repealed.

The same could not be said for New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair, who has accused the oil sands of driving up the value of the Canadian dollar and killing manufacturing jobs elsewhere in the country. Alberta officials didn’t even bother to welcome him, belying Calgary’s self-proclaimed reputation for western hospitality.

More than 30 years later, many Albertans are still angry about Trudeau’s energy policies, which sought to increase federal control over the province’s oil and gas. A billboard on the main highway into Calgary reads: More Alberta, Less Ottawa. Constitutionally, Alberta, not the federal government, owns the oil and gas beneath its soil and meddling from afar is viewed dimly.

Times have changed, though, and cooperation, not confrontation, is the order of the day. Alberta’s Redford now says she is committed to building bridges with the rest of the country even as opposition mounts to the environmental impacts of oil-sands development in Canada, the US and the EU.

Though her Progressive Conservatives are not ideological soul mates of Harper’s Conservatives, they are sufficiently aligned to press forward with the Keystone XL and Gateway pipelines to the US and west coast of Canada. New export pipelines are a critical prerequisite to opening new markets in Asia and the US to facilitate future production expansions.

Calgarians remain wary of politicians who are ‘all hat and no cows’, as the Texan saying goes.

Yet for Canada’s oil patch, Stampede is no time to worry about such things. There is always another barbecue to attend, and another flapjack to be flipped. And plenty more oil where that came from.

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