Friday, May 3, 2024

Fort Calgary's New Name - Reconciliation or Just Good History?

It seems like just yesterday that the City of Calgary announced it had spent 4.8 million dollars to come up with a new brand. In actuality, it was just over two weeks ago that citizens were informed "Be Part of the Energy" was going away, and we were now the Blue Sky City. 

Calgary re-branded as the 'Blue Sky City' | CBC News

I won't record my own response here but safe to say public reaction was "mixed." Certainly the Premier of Alberta was less than enthusiastic about changing from the older motto, though her public comments stopped short of commenting directly on the relative merits of the new one.

Bell: Danielle Smith's thumbs-down to Calgary's Blue Sky City brand | Calgary Herald

Calgarians are used to expressing their anger over public works, and recent contretemps include among others the Calatrava bridge (some commentators have felt that the official name of Peace Bridge was a crass attempt to curry favour with a hostile electorate, I will make no such claim here myself.) The infamous blue ring was another, and there was the Poop Palace which displayed in LED lights the flow of wastewater through our sewage system. 


So the social media response to the latest 'blue sky' idea should be no surprise in a city where the default reaction to public works announcements is anger first, reflection later, maybe. Yesterday, 2 May 2024, the city teased a big announcement at Fort Calgary on morning radio shows, and then on cue announced that the site of Fort Calgary was now rebranded to become The Confluence: Historic Site and Parkland.

Fort Calgary rebranded to represent landmark's multiple histories | CBC News

What to make of this?

Backlash against this goes beyond mere concern for the public purse, of course. Canadians of European ancestry have begun to either feel or sense a rising discomfort with their own history, if not among themselves then certainly among a vocal minority of .... well, minorities. Wikipedia has a whole list of statues that have been removed in recent years, all of them of explorers or public figures either British or of British ancestry. It would be impossible to recount the entire history of European settlement/colonization and its attendant issues of First Nations relations, residential schools, and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, among others. I won't pass judgement on what I think the "correct" view of all this history is, other than to generally agree with whomever said "history should make you uncomfortable." That is to say, if you're making an honest attempt to understand it rather than judge past figures by the standards of today.

I feel much more comfortable giving an opinion from a purely military history point of view, which would also be much more in line with the stated focus of this blog. And through that lens, the renaming of the Fort Calgary site makes some sense to me. One fears that the actual history of the site, which one hopes informed the site's decision to rebrand, may be forgotten as sides ramp up to fight another battle in the culture war. A review of what actually happened there might be instructive and perhaps even help avoid such a fight altogether.

Fortress on the Bow

The North-West Mounted Police stood up in 1874 and marched west from what became Manitoba in order to ensure peace, order and good government met the waves of European settlers that the new nation of Canada expected to populate what would become their western provinces. Fort Macleod was established a little too far from the trading post at Edmonton and "F" Troop set out from the once thriving town of Tail Creek (near what today are Red Deer and Stettler) to create an intermediate station. In August 1875 the troop travelled toward what became the Ghost Dam, and then along the Bow River to where it met the Elbow - or, as many histories written by authors well conversant in the English language usually say, at the "confluence" of the two waters.

Wooden palisades went up before Christmas, Inspector Brisebois tried to name the place after himself but failed, and his boss, Superintendent James Macleod named it for a castle in Scotland he had once summered at with family. 

Relations with the First Nations were good. Fort Calgary lay on the traditional lands of the Blackfoot, Nakoda, Sarcee (now Tsuut'ina) and M├ętis, and by 1878 treaties had paved the way for European settlement and peaceful co-existence. In 1882 the palisades came down, just seven years after they had gone up, with expanded barracks going up in their place. In 1884, the rail link to Winnipeg was complete and the small collection of civilian dwellings in and about the former site of the fort became the Town of Calgary. Ten years later, Calgary was a City.

Ever since that beginning, the only serious threat of invasion by an armed enemy that Calgary ever faced was in 1885 and the Northwest Rebellion. Unfortunately for the citizens of Calgary, not only was the fort gone, but most of the mounties had ridden off as part of the Alberta Field Force. James Walker stood up a home guard of a hundred armed cowboys and paraded daily to show the local First Nations that Calgarians would fight for their homes if need be. The First Nations for their part gave the citizens no trouble, and the fighting took place in far off places like Batoche and Duck Lake.

The war, such as it was, took up the better part of the spring but was over relatively quickly. It was enough to scare Calgarians, who clamoured for a military unit of their own. They had to wait until after the Boer War had begun to get one. A squadron of the Canadian Mounted Rifles stood up in 1901, followed by the creation of other support units and finally an infantry regiment in April 1910 called the 103rd Regiment, Calgary Rifles. The growing military clamoured for storage and drill space, and again, war intervened in their plans. Mewata Armoury was built after delays caused by the First World War. It put the original Fort Calgary to shame, built in Tudor Gothic style from brick and sandstone, with heavy steel bars on the windows, towers and ramparts reminiscent of a medieval castle. Threats of war, with either the First Nations or the United States, were largely a thing of the past. In fact, First Nations men joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight for Canada in large numbers, even though things like veterans benefits and voting privileges would not be granted until years or even decades in the future.

Confluence

Of all the military installations that have come and gone from Calgary, from Currie and Harvey Barracks to the now dimly remembered Northeast Armouries, few could claim a shorter active service life than the original Fort Calgary. The importance of the fort to Calgary's history cannot be determined solely from that service life, which, it may be pointed out, managed to avoid falling in the period of any major Canadian military conflicts. It's importance was as a meeting place where relationships between the old world and the new were fostered. A little too well, perhaps, for as the story goes Inspector Ephrem Brisebois, the original commander, had the only wood-burning stove in camp and kept it in his personal quarters to facilitate liaisons with local First Nations women, something which engendered very little affection from his men who subsequently developed a reputation for poor discipline. 

It would be wrong, in my opinion, to assign much importance to the wooden palisades that stood for a paltry seven years, a relative blink of the eye in our continuing civic history. It was an important first chapter, but Calgary's legacy is a largely peaceful one, where we've had the luxury of fighting our battles on foreign soil. Fort Calgary deserves to be remembered, but for what it was - a very small part of the entirely peaceful history of a city forged by people of a great diversity of backgrounds. As such, the name "Confluence" seems to nicely encapsulate that idea, a meeting not only of two rivers, essential to sustain life, but of great peoples who managed to live more or less harmoniously with each other from the very beginning. Those beginnings are worth remembering as Canada struggles with its self-assigned task of Reconciliation. 


For More

I will confess to having recently researched some aspects of the early military history of Calgary for the recently published book Calgary's Infantry Regiment: A Pictorial History of The Calgary Highlanders

Calgary's Infantry Regiment: A Pictorial History of The Calgary Highlanders

The book can be ordered from Amazon.ca at the link above.


Final Word

My friend Patrick Yeates gave me a tour of his Winnipeg hometown a few years ago and "The Forks" stood out to me in memory just as much as both statues of Louis Riel. It was an effective branding, for that reason alone, and another reason I think "Confluence" may have some legs as far as helping with tourism. I took a neighbour's son to the Fort Calgary interpretive centre and found it enjoyable, but of course, there was so much more in the galleries than just the fort, and the same can be said of the entire area where the rivers meet. The Hunt House, Calgary's oldest building, fascinated us both and like the displays of automobiles or newspaper typesetters inside the interpretive centre, really had not a lot to do with the fort itself and everything to do with a wider civic history. The new name will reflect that, too.

Michael A. Dorosh