This City Has Fangs: Reflections Upon Leaving Calgary

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When someone says they love a city—or hate it—they are often telling you what they think of the version of themselves they see reflected in it. They love—or hate—who they are in that city.”

– Chris Turner, Calgary Reconsidered

I’ve been feeling downright insolent towards Calgary lately. Insolent! I’m finally moving out of the province, and I feel like a teenager storming out of the house and slamming the door. I’m trying to sort through all my incredibly negative feelings towards this place. I feel like this city has rejected me. I feel like no matter how hard I try, there just isn’t space for me here, space for me to feel valued, love and live to my full capacity. And why? Why do I feel like this? Then it hits me – Calgary and my father have become interchangeable in my mind.

This isn’t exactly an arbitrary allegory. As I’ve been preparing to leave, I’ve also been reflecting heavily, trying to understand how this damn place works, how I work. So I’ve been reading history, Alberta’s history, as much as I can. And everywhere I go, I see traces of him, my father. And by traces, I mean like entire paragraphs and pages highlighted, neon signs flickering, “You’ve been here before.”

Preacher’s Daughter

Alberta’s seventh premier, William Aberhart, was a radio preacher known as “Bible Bill” in the 1930s, not too different from the preachers I would listen to in the 90s on AM 1140 in my Dad’s station wagon.

Much like my father, Aberhart believed in the Rapture. Both were convinced the world would be plunged into divine fury at any moment, with only the righteous saved, caught up into Heaven and given immortal bodies in a blink an eye.

Aberhart used his radio platform to promote Social Credit theory (don’t ask me to explain it, I barely know, although at some point printing money was involved), which became wildly popular in the middle of the Depression. And so, Aberhart, “Bible Bill,” became the Calgarian patriarch of Alberta’s 36 year Social Credit dynasty.

My father’s politics and religion were similarly entwined, facilitating parenting style that always placed me on the edge of personal, political and religious apocalypses. If I didn’t turn out the right way, it was only just that I be cut off, like a branch that produces no fruit, and cast into hellfire. There was never any in between with my father, you had to be either hot or cold, lest your lukewarm body be spit out.

I guess that sounds pretty dramatic, but I hope it goes without saying that fundamentalism has zero chill, measured in Kelvin. At one point, my Dad stopped talking to me for an entire year because I briefly attended public school and got a boyfriend in Grade 8.

This tense emotional state was a norm, and the blurring together off all authority figures in my life – God, my father, our Conservative leaders – facilitated major anxiety over my oscillating status between physical and spiritual heavens and hells.

Signs of the Times

So I’m in my Dad’s basement apartment, fidgeting as the 2000 federal election results come in on TV. We’re rooting for Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, who, like my father, is a fervent young earth creationist. In that same apartment, I would watch video seminars on creationism by Kent Hovind and Ken Ham, filling pages and pages of notes. I strove to emulate my father in any way I could, learning as much as I could about creationism, Bible prophecy and politics.

My Dad’s a writer too, you know. He would always encourage my writing also, even going so far to make me my own website using FrontPage 95. This served to be a sort of “by a kid, for kids” resource on Christianity and creationism. When I was a teenager, we would travel together to Bible prophecy conferences in Saskatoon and Winnipeg, and I would write summaries of each seminar for my blog. By now, I had decided I wanted to pursue journalism, and so he helped buy me a video camera so I could make my own videos in addition to writing.

Bible prophecy, or eschatology (the study of the end times), is heavily political. It relies on keeping track of and analyzing current events alongside prophetic scriptures found in the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Revelation. Secular acceptance of same-sex marriage, abortion and “feminazis” were seen as “signs of the end times.” This world was where I felt closest to him, engaging the realm of gods and kings, the unseen powers and principalities that ruled this world. Politics was a spiritual battleground. Here, my Dad and I were a united front. We stood together here even though we were apart in so many other ways.

Who is this King of Glory?

I’ve been obsessed with Ralph Klein lately, and I think it has a lot to do with my Dad’s laughter. That’s how my Dad responded to all of Ralph’s antics – laughter, sometimes tears rolling down his face, when he recalled Klein’s quip about “eastern bums and creeps” coming into Alberta looking for jobs. He would joke about “basement dwellers,” which referred to anyone with tattoos and weird hair in our neighbourhood – basically, anyone who didn’t look like they had a ton of money. He was fervently of the belief that people shouldn’t rely on the government for anything, and those who did were using the money to fund immoral lifestyles. When he laughed, he laughed deeply.

This was a perplexing thing for me to deal with. My mother, whom I lived with for most of my life, had divorced my father when I was two years old and my sister was just an infant. She did all the heavy lifting of raising and providing a home for us. But if there were any words I learned early on, “government subsidy” and “family allowance” were at the top of the list. As soon as I was old enough to understand the concept of welfare, I realized that we were on it. How could I reconcile this with my beliefs, the ones that kept me in favor with my personal, political and religious fathers?

I learned to resent my mother.

Now imagine living with a child who disparages you for doing the very things you need to take care of her. That became my mother’s life. I made her feel like she was never good enough, that she was a failure for needing government assistance. I remember one time being angry that she had brought home food from the food bank. Imagine, your own child guilting you for getting food from the food bank so she could eat. And that’s not the worst of it, the rest is far too awful for me to type.

I was a piece of shit child. I wish I could take it all back.     

But I also hated myself. I hated myself for being poor, for having divorced parents, for not having nice clothes, for not having proper lunches, for not being able to afford all the extracurricular activities other kids could do, like dance and, hell, even baseball. Visiting friend’s houses for birthday parties was a nightmare. Giant signs saying Edgemont, Hawkwood and The Hamptons signified entry into a land of ease and comfort I could only visit, but never stay. I was hurt, I was angry, I wanted answers.

Ralph Klein gave me the answers.

The Children’s Teeth Are Set on Edge

I’ve been told I’m one of the few that has actually been born and raised in Calgary today. According to a 2015 report titled The Changing Face of Calgary, it’s not an inaccurate assessment. Over the next twenty five years, it’s estimated that ⅔ of Calgary’s population will be made up of migrants. The report also states we have the youngest population of all major cities in Canada, with many young families moving to the Alberta for work.  To reflecting its youthful demographics and position as one of the world’s energy capitals, Calgary rebranded its slogan from “Heart of the New West,” to “Be Part of the Energy” last year. 

The city itself is also young and, as many point out, slowly coming of age, eager to prove its “world class” status. Is it any coincidence then that one of Calgary’s biggest boosters, Mike Morrison, the man behind Mike’s Bloggity Blog, is from the east coast? There’s a lot of room to make a name for yourself here, and it can be exhilarating to play a part in Calgary’s cultural growth.

But this has played a part of a sort of political gentrification of Calgary’s history among progressives. Just like we pave over old buildings, we’ll pave over our cultural roots, eager to say, “Calgary’s more progressive than people think it is. Calgary’s changed a lot, it’s growing, it’s different.” And all that may be true in some capacity – thankfully, I don’t think anyone has called Mike Morrison a bum or a creep for moving here from the east – but in many ways, this rhetoric is just window dressing.

The roots of Calgary’s past run deep, found in policies, family dynasties, university classrooms, in the very bodies of those who have been here long enough. The effects of such history – astronomical income gaps between the rich and the poor, between men and women, high rates of domestic violence (and climbing higher), sprawling urban development, precarious employment, unchanging child poverty rates, lack of affordable housing, a struggling health care system – all must be addressed with the same intensity in which we celebrate Calgary’s “cultural growth.” Will newcomers, the young families in Mahogany or Legacy, be compelled to engage with and atone for the sins of our fathers? Calgary is not a blank slate.

The energy in Calgary is enticing, though. For me, coming from homeschooling into the campus environment was almost like arriving on a different planet. There were so many people! And things to do! And so many people who were ready to provide channels for my youthful enthusiasm. Campus media, communications, activism, politics – there was space for me here, though I had to go through a little culture shock in the form of an existential crisis first.

An internal apocalypse, if you will, that shook my faith and sent me hurling away from my father and into the arms of the city.

My foray away from fundamentalism and into feminism is documented here and here.so I’m not going to spend too much time recapping it all, but let’s just say it landed me in the realm of “progressives who do things” in Calgary. I dived in and learned everything I could about who was doing what, especially when it came to sexual health. I made this world my home, and I gave it my all, working with amazing people to get some shit  done that I’m very proud of.

All the while, I would go for dinner occasionally with my father, staying mostly silent, having to hide my life and accomplishments from him, as he continued to laugh his deep laugh.

Obey Your Earthly Masters with Sincerity of Heart

There are plenty of neat things to do in Calgary. Whether anyone will pay you for it is another question entirely. Students are a great source of enthusiastic, and most importantly, free labour who rarely feel empowered to ask for actual wages in exchange for that labour. Many of my friends and I got our incomes, then, from the service industry, working restaurant and/or retail jobs, in addition to attending classes and volunteering for those sweet, sweet resume pads.

University teaches you a lot of things, like normalizing getting overworked and underpaid, chasing invisible carrots that you hope will one day be delicious enough to be worth it.

After years and years of underpaid and/or free labour, I finally had an interview for my dream job. I would be doing work that I found personally fulfilling, utilizing my entire skill set I had developed in university. All my hard work was finally paying off. Through the fire and brimstone of family poverty and trauma, I had come out the other side, ready to start a career and a life for myself, one where I could finally stand on my own.

But as the interview progressed, my soul felt like it was being put into a compactor. I was told explicitly I would be expected to do unpaid work outside of the regular hours and always be on call. I would also have to get a car. (Remember Nenshi’s stint about using transit to get everywhere during his first mayoral campaign? Works great as a gimmick, not so much in real life.) They also noted the person in the previous position left because it was too overwhelming.

This job would own me. I would be working around the clock, earning just enough to keep me technically alive and able to work, like some sort of neo-feudal serf. I guess I was  a little naive in thinking employers who claimed to be cognizant of oppression and exploitation would engage in it so unabashedly themselves.

I withdrew my application – even though it would have no doubt launched my professional career.

Had I come this far only to be wrung out and hung to dry, my body dry and shrivelled? How much longer would I have to prove myself worthy before anyone gave a shit about my wellbeing, my ability to take care of myself? Was this the best Calgary had to offer, after I had given it so much?

Much like my father, Calgary only seems interested in me when I’m doing exactly what it wants, the way it wants. Only then will it give me an inch to breathe, which seems like a consideration, though it merely draws out the suffocation process a little longer.

The walls are closing in. I have to get out. I have to get out.

Why don’t you love me?

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Matthew 7: 21-23 (KJV)

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2 thoughts on “This City Has Fangs: Reflections Upon Leaving Calgary

  1. Hey Emily. Thanks for sharing.this was so deeply insightful. I wish u the best in the next chapter of your life.thanks for being a friend when we connected years back.I won’t ever forget you.❤ I still have your book bell hooks teaching to transgress and just used it for a course.I know it sounds cliche, but there strength in your ability to be so open and vulnerable about your experiences.I hope to one day get there.love ya girl!! Hit me up if u visit back and my Hubby’s FAM lives in winnepeg so I’ll look u up when I’m ever in town

    Like

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