Ask Albertans their thoughts on our two major urban centres and you’ll get wildly differing opinions – but most would at least concede that Calgary and Edmonton are roughly the same size.
Not Naheed Nenshi.
The charismatic Calgary mayor is quick to assert in an interview that Calgary has almost 1.2 million people to Edmonton’s roughly 700,000. Actually, Edmonton’s population hovers closer to 877,000. And the greater capital region is the same size as Calgary, give or take. According to the latest Statistics Canada census report, Calgary’s metro population stood at 1.36 million, Edmonton at 1.29 million.
Nenshi makes the comment when asked his thoughts on why Edmontonians seem to suffer an inferiority complex about Calgary.
“It’s really about size,” says Nenshi, suggesting Calgarians might feel the same way about Toronto. “I don’t think Calgarians stay awake at night wondering, ‘Do Edmontonians like me?’ … We tend to be a pretty confident people. It’s a sense of being comfortable in our own skin.”
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, charismatic in his own right, acknowledges that Edmonton once had an inferiority complex but, for him, it’s not about who’s bigger. It’s about Edmonton being a more diverse and complex city, and taking longer to discover its identity. He sees the angst dissipating.
“There’s a renewed confidence in Edmonton without losing that humility that sets us apart a bit from the city to the south,” he says. “We’re done apologizing for Edmonton; that’s the main thing.”
Each mayor draws on the metaphor of siblings to describe the relationship and rivalry between their two cities. And it’s true: Like brothers and sisters, they can’t help but compete, try to outdo each other, argue about who’s prettier or smarter, and keep a constant tally of who-got-what and who-got-more. Recently, Brian Burke of the Calgary Flames used Edmonton’s forthcoming new arena as an argument for why Calgary now needs one too. In 2009, Edmonton was two years into working on a bid to host Expo 2017 when Calgary suddenly announced its intentions to vie for it, too. (Calgary later withdrew its bid and Edmonton’s fizzled over a lack of federal funding.)
From birth, Calgary and Edmonton have been different, and yet the issues before them have always been the same: Managing urban growth and wresting more power from the province.
Iveson calls the two cities “mutually dependent,” and suggests their similarities have become more obvious as they wrestle with the modern challenges of oil prosperity.
“Alberta’s really one big economy – integrated from the north, where the resources are, to Edmonton’s logistical support and innovation, to Calgary where a lot of the deals happen,” says Iveson. “Thinking about them as separate economies competing against each other is bad for Alberta.”
The mayors agree joining forces is critical to both cities achieving their goals, particularly realizing the elusive big-city charter and receiving funding from the higher levels of government for crucial projects like LRT.
“The relationship is very good. It was good under (former Edmonton mayor) Stephen Mandel and it’s very good under Mr. Iveson,” says Nenshi. “But we have a lot more that we could and should be doing together. We can be much more thoughtful and powerful together than we can be fighting each other.”
His choice of words, and use of the present tense, is telling. Neither of the mayors will say it outright, but each clearly recognizes that the rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton is very much alive.
Turns out it has been for well over 100 years.
At their outset, Calgary and Edmonton were no more than two “toddling towns” in the western Canadian wilderness, says Dr. Alvin Finkel, professor of history at Athabasca University. But in those nascent days, each city scored crucial wins against the other that would solidify their rivalry.
Calgary took the early lead in the 1880s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway opted to send its main line through the southern town instead of Edmonton. Then, when Alberta became a province at the turn of the century, both towns waited to hear which would become the capital city and get the university – and the prestige that came with both.
“In both cases, Edmonton won out. That was due to Edmonton’s support for Wilfrid Laurier’s federal Liberal government of the day,” Finkel says.
Iveson believes the Liberal loyalty taints Edmonton to this day, in the eyes of the provincial Conservative government, but says the ruling Tories can get away with that no longer.
“For a long time, the rulers ruled with rural Alberta and Calgary – Edmonton was frozen out, even punished, for its political leanings. But in the next election or two, it will be impossible to govern Alberta without strong support from Edmonton,” he says. “Edmonton will be at the table, and that will protect us from some of the predatory things that occurred when we were not at the table.”
The disparity between the two cities also resulted from a divergent evolution of their cultures, Finkel adds. Early settlers in the Calgary and southern Alberta areas were American farmers who came north looking for land. “They were WASPs who brought with them their farm machinery and their ideas.” Edmonton, meanwhile, received an influx of Eastern and southern Europeans not seen in Calgary, leading to a greater ethnic mix.
When oil was first discovered in Alberta, it was in Turner Valley in the south. Calgary became the white-collar nexus of oil and gas head offices and remains so today, while still maintaining what Finkel calls the “pseudo-frontier image” of “Cowtown.”
“Calgary is urban, materialistic, very much about keeping your hands clean. They’re not farming; they’re not ranching. Their cowboy hats are those of weekend cowboys who wouldn’t go anywhere near a cow.”
Edmonton, by comparison, became the supply centre of the oil industry and filled up with blue collar workers who had no qualms about dirt on their hands. It also tried on some of its own founding myths – think Klondike Days (now K-Days), a festival honouring a 19th-century gold rush that had about as much to do with Edmonton as the cattle-rustling image of the Stampede has ever had to do with Calgary.
But, as Iveson suggests, Edmonton has taken longer to successfully brand itself. He sees many faces of Edmonton, calling it a manufacturing town, a university town and an arts town.
Others call it a government town.
“I think there’s a difference in attitude because of Edmonton being a government city. I’ve seen that with Ottawa too,” says Calgary Coun. Jim Stevenson, adding he doesn’t mean that as a criticism. “Edmonton is great – except for some of their potholes.”
Iveson calls the stereotype inaccurate.
“Some Calgarians may still be resentful that Edmonton is the capital city,” he says. “There was a time when it was fashionable to hate government. I actually have a theory that the fact we have good public-sector jobs here unlocks a lot of entrepreneurship,” he says.
In the end, the Edmonton mayor ascribes the developmental differences of the two cities to one single, dirty word: Annexation.
In the late 1950s, Calgary amalgamated into one big region, a move that helped centralize its decision-making and consolidate its non-residential tax base. Iveson believes this was a major advantage that has given Calgary a leg up on Edmonton.
“Edmonton was not afforded the same amalgamation, and we have struggled for 60 years at a disadvantage. We’ve been dealing with regional challenges and fragmentation since,” says Iveson. That the rivalry is so long entrenched – and that it continues (Coun. Stevenson still winces at mention of Edmonton International Airport’s “Kick the Calgary habit” campaign to deter Edmontonians from catching international flights from Calgary) makes one question whether it’s simply in Alberta’s blood.
Both mayors say cooperation is crucial. Iveson calls “predatory competition” bad. But neither man is willing to let his city be walked on.
“There is room in Alberta for two great cities and Edmonton will not stand to be relegated to second status,” says Iveson.
But while this rivalry might never be buried completely, perhaps the two cities are finding ways to use one of its hallmarks – a keen interest in the other’s affairs – to mutual advantage.
For example, Nenshi says he felt encouraged, not jealous, last spring when Edmonton got $600 million in LRT funding from the province while Calgary got none. “It means the province is willing to make special deals on LRT.”
Translation: A funding win for one city is a leveraging opportunity for the other. Earlier this year, Coun. Stevenson headed to Ottawa with Edmonton Coun. Amarjeet Sohi to jointly lobby the federal government for major infrastructure funding.
Finkel says the cities should take a cue from rural Alberta when it comes to pooling their efforts.
“The countryside is better able to work together – they’ve been able to get a hospital, a courthouse and whatever else they want in every little village in the province. The balance has not been provided … The tax burden falls disproportionately on the cities,” he says.
For Iveson and Nenshi, the solution to the great unfairness of it all is the big-city charter both are championing – an agreement with the province that would give cities more power and responsibility, and make provincial funding more predictable.
“The province has preferred to treat big cities as just bigger versions of smaller centres, and they’re not,” says Nenshi. “Right now we’re governed under legislation that gives us the same powers as Rosebud, Alberta.”
Iveson says the charter “will provide long overdue recognition that Edmonton and Calgary play a special role in the province as service centres and hubs for northern and southern Alberta.”
Putting the differences aside can accomplish so much, and can create goodwill – look back to the 2013 flood, when Edmonton sent 100 police officers, along with emergency equipment and firefighters, to help its deluged southern neighbour. But maybe embracing those differences can accomplish even more.
Both mayors hint as much. Iveson sees the relationship between Calgary and Edmonton maturing. “We’re not teenage siblings pounding on each other anymore. We’re in our 20s now, starting to appreciate the other as having its own interests and strengths.”
Nenshi goes so far as to say the rivalry isn’t necessarily bad, opining siblings who don’t compete with each other probably don’t have a very good relationship.
“We should have that rivalry,” he says. “We should be competitive with one another.”
So feel free to keep track of who’s bigger. Smaller siblings tend to catch up eventually.
The squabble between Edmonton and Calgary goes far down the family tree
1885: Alberta won’t be a province for 20 years, but the Canadian Pacific Railway is completed, linking British Columbia to the eastern provinces. The CPR had chosen a southern route through the Rockies, which makes Calgary the source of settlement in the region. (In 1996, CP would move its headquarters to Calgary).
1898: In an early meeting between the cities’ hockey teams, a game between the Calgary Fire Brigade and Edmonton Shamrocks turns violent. Calgary’s Everett Marshall loses an eye to a Shamrock player’s stick, and the Edmonton Bulletin reports that there were more injuries in the game.
1905: Seen as a stronghold for the Liberal Party, Edmonton is rewarded by being named the capital of the new province of Alberta. Under premier Alexander Rutherford, the city is also declared the host of the soon-to-be built University of Alberta. 1988: During the Calgary Winter Games, then-Calgary mayor (and future premier of Alberta) Ralph Klein tells the media what he thinks of the capital: “Edmonton isn’t really the end of the world – although you can see it from there.”
2014: According to Numbeo, which regularly measures quality of life based on purchasing power, commute times, pollution, safety and health care, Calgary was the seventh-best city in the world in which to live. Edmonton ranked 19th. (If you’re interested, Numbeo ranked Caracas, Venezuela as the world’s worst city in which to live; at the top was Canberra, Australia).