Now it can be told: Real Calgarians wear loafers in the office

Every year at this time, politicians stampede west to Alberta

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The Gazette, Friday, July 13, 2007

Stampeding is a verb, as in Just Stampeding at Cowboys, the huge dance bar where live music and shooters are the order of the day, deep into the Calgary night.

Welcome to the Stampede, billed as the "greatest outdoor show on earth," and that's just the rodeo, chuckwagon races and nightly grandstand show with its stunning fireworks, to say nothing of the off-site parties that start at breakfast and end at dawn.

And if stampeding can be hard on the liver, it can be even harder on the feet. Let's put it this way - the Calgary Stampede is no place to break in a new pair of cowboy boots.

But here is Calgary's dirty little secret. After about the fifth day, as Peter Lougheed once confided to a visitor from the East, Calgarians might wear their boots to work, but many switch to loafers at the office.

And here's a tip: Visitors can get away without the hat or the boots, but not both. The Stampede's official Smithbilt hat is a local label, but it's made in Mexico. Viva NAFTA.

Jeans are recommended attire, as are long-sleeve western shirts. Polos and golf shirts are seriously frowned upon. In a very elegant gesture, in support of breast-cancer fundraising, the Stampede this year adopted a "tough-enough-to-wear-pink" theme, with cowboys in pink shirts.

Another bit of local knowledge: Jeans are never worn without a belt, and a belt is preferably worn with an engraved western buckle. This is a town in which a belt buckle is not only a serious gift, but can also be an expensive one.

What started out in 1912 as a rodeo in Cowtown has become a global brand, and a very big business, with 1.2 million visitors generating an estimated $120 million in sales over the 10 days of the Stampede, and about $350 million to the Calgary and Alberta economies.

And since Cowtown is also the oil patch, the Stampede has become a major representational business event.

"People now use the Stampede as a vehicle for global business opportunities," says Pierre Alvarez, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "The focus of people who come through here at Stampede is not just politicians, but investment bankers from around the world."

But there's no shortage of politicians, either. Wearing a hat at the Stampede, and flipping flapjacks at a Stampede breakfast, are rites of passage in Canadian retail politics.

Stephane Dion and Jack Layton were here last weekend. Industry Minister Maxime Bernier had such a good time he stayed for three days. Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn was reportedly trying out his very first pair of jeans. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay will be here as Stampede winds down this weekend.

And then there's Stephen Harper, who as a local MP spends about five days on an annual fence-mending visit to Calgary during Stampede. He generally arrives for the parade on the opening Friday, and stays through his riding association's annual barbecue the following Tuesday evening.

This is not as easy as it used to be. There are significant security thresholds around the prime minister riding in a parade. The RCMP preferred he sit on the reviewing stand with his family. Even Harper's barbecue, with 1,000 of his closest friends in a tent, is no longer a casual affair in terms of security.

As he spoke the other night, there were very serious-looking sentries, and not just the usual RCMP detail, posted at the four corners of the stage. In the age in which we live, it goes with the territory.

Music is a big part of the Stampede. Bon Jovi was at the sold-out Saddledome for a spectacular concert on Wednesday night. At the club level, April Wine was the main act at Cowboys on Tuesday, following Blue Rodeo on Sunday. Evidently, Harper is a big fan of Blue Rodeo, and efforts were made to get him there for a set, but it turned out he had to work on a speech.

Cowboys, with waitresses who make Hooters girls look modest by comparison, isn't a PM's kind of place anyway. As they say about Vegas, what goes on there, stays there. It was a Cowboys girl who had a brief encounter with Prince Harry, while he was in Alberta training with his British army unit, and sold her story to a London tab.

This just in: Randy soldier hits on buxom waitress.

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