CALGARY – People wearing cowboy hats, boots, belts and buckles filled downtown streets with yahoos and yeehaws as the annual celebration of the cowboy life kicked off in Alberta’s largest city Friday.
But there was a dash of added excitement for the estimated 400,000 who squeezed into spots six layers deep along the parade route: it’s the centennial of the Calgary Stampede.
Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper got into the Stampede spirit as he paid tribute to Guy Weadick and his wife Florence LaDue who were instrumental in holding the very first “cowboy championship” 100 years ago.
“I think if the founders could be here today and see the great city, see what has built up around this event, they would be amazed. They would be amazed to see that their Stampede has been part of giving birth to the greatest city and the greatest country in the world,” said Harper just before the parade began.
“The Calgary Stampede has become a real Canadian icon and it’s one of the things that is known about this country, about Canada, the world over.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi wondered what the creators of the 10-day festival would think if they were alive now.
“I don’t know what Guy Weadick and Florence LaDue were thinking they were building … in 1912, but I’m sure that they understood that they were building something special and lasting that would end up in the blood stream and DNA of every Calgarian,” Nenshi said.
Kelly Cholach, 8, sat on the pavement and focused intently on the finishing touches to the fluorescent green sign she planned to hold up for one parade participant she and little sister Taylor were particularly excited to see.
Their dad, a former bareback riding champion, was invited to take part.
“We’re going to put up our sign and yell, ‘Hi dad,’” said the sisters’ mom Bev Cholach.
Brian Hung had been to the Stampede parade before, but this year was special. His four-year-old son was taking in the floats, marching bands and hundreds of horses for the first time.
“It’s going to be special,” said the plaid-clad dad.
Laurie Harris, who lives right by the parade route, staked out her prime spot at 4 p.m. Thursday. She said she was most excited to see this year’s parade marshal, country music singer Ian Tyson.
She said she planned on yelling “yahoo” as the singer passed.
Harris’s friend and workmate Kathy Bladen said it was her 26th time coming to the parade. She never gets tired of seeing the horses and floats.
Last year was a special one, too, she said.
“I was here at 4 a.m. to see the prince,” she said, referring to Prince William and his wife Kate’s visit to Calgary last summer.
Blake Bosey, 20, and Melissa Leary, 21, were a little low-energy before the parade started. That’s because they’d been sitting in their chairs, swaddled under blankets, since 1 a.m. to stake out their spots.
“The wind really picked up so we were a little chilly. The sun’s out now, so it’s nice,” said Bosey, who has the same parade ritual every year.
It was Leary’s first time pulling an all-nighter before parade day.
She said she wouldn’t be keen on doing it again, but she had no regrets about staying up all night.
“It’s a good spot, absolutely.”
Alberta Premier Alison Redford admitted to being a little nervous before embarking on the parade route aboard her horse Rowdy. She said she isn’t an experienced rider, so was “cautious but happy to do it.”
It was Redford’s first Stampede parade since becoming premier and she used the opportunity to pump up her province by saying it’s a good time to be living in Alberta.
“I think people are really happy right now. I think people have a sense of how fortunate we are,” she said.
“We’re a pretty diligent, hard-working group of people and the 100th anniversary really does celebrate what our successes have been. And the fact we’ve been successful … is because we think about the future.”