Mike RobinsonLast weekend, my wife and I flew to Calgary to attend a friend’s wedding. It was my first time back in several years where we had three days to poke about and explore the old hometown.

It was a sunny weekend, and it was easy to accept the old cues of prairie summer: puffy white cumulous clouds all along the northern horizon; the feeling of being in the centre of the action as your sight lines run equally off in all directions; the bright high-altitude sunshine.

Yet you could sense something was amiss. We arrived at the airport’s brand new wing late Friday night, and there were precious few passengers walking about YYC. In the old days (1978 – 2008 for us), Friday night was a big hustle-and-bustle time as oil workers, from rig pigs to VPs, arrived home for the weekend. I still treasure a memory of seeing former premier Peter Lougheed retrieving his bag from the luggage carousel late one Friday night.

When we wheeled our rent-a-car out onto the highway, there seemed to be way less traffic on the roads.

As we headed south to our hotel in the centre of town, several tall condo towers loomed darkly in the East Village. “No lights mean no tenants,” we thought. The hotel lobby was dead quiet too. I asked if the pre-Stampede week crowd was checked in, only to be told that they would be sold out next week, not this one. Far from it.

Saturday morning, we decided to drive by the old neighbourhoods, Edgemont and Brentwood, and photograph our old homes. Two of the three had closed blinds and curtains in mid-day. Our first proud little house (we called it ‘the single-wide’ because its dimensions resembled a trailer-home) was now really run down. There wasn’t one flower growing in the front yard, and my carefully constructed rear fence was tumbling into the lane.

We were invited to Saturday lunch by old family friends and jumped at the chance. We are all older now, but our enthusiasms are still fresh. We compared notes on children and grandchildren, and the opportunities they were working on in their new careers.

None was employed in the oil patch. Four had left Alberta to find work. Three tell-tale lines of conversation are still fresh in my mind: “This one seems different from the other busts;” “Bright young people aren’t choosing to work in the oil and gas sector anymore;” and, “Maybe it’s time for the old number one, agriculture, to become dominant once again.”

The wedding reception we had come to attend was held in a favourite Chinatown restaurant on Saturday night. The international crowd of guests was typical of the old Calgary, with people invited to stand, table by table, as all 270 were introduced by the emcee. The majority were local, but at least 40 percent were from away, returning for the wedding.

Monday morning, I had planned a Glenbow Museum visit, always high on my Calgary to-do list. It is always fun to view the Stampede-themed exhibitions in July, and to see the tourists thronging about in their new Wranglers and Smithbilt hats.

This past Monday however, the crowds were very modest. The main Stampede exhibition, on the photographs of Edward Sherrif Curtis, was simple and honest. The old wood frames, sepia toned prints and indigenous character from the U.S. and Canada filled two display halls. I shared them with two black-shirted security guards.

As I walked from picture to picture, I thought of how significant Curtis’ work has become to a broad cross-section of viewers, from tribal relatives, to anthropologists, to college students, to artists, to tourists. He captured in the early 1930s dramatic images of aboriginal people at the end of an era. The indigenous cultures of the Great Plains, the South-West, the Northwest Coast and the Arctic today acknowledge Curtis’ gift of foresight. He saw what was coming.

Leaving Calgary Monday night, I was struck by the parallels between Curtis’ vision and contemporary Alberta. It may just be time to begin recording what was, in anticipation of what is about to emerge. Calgary is calling for its Curtis.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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