Is there an Edmonton story?

The company I work for, Story Engine, pitched the City of Edmonton on something strange back in January, 2012. I had worked on the City Vision for 2040, and I had noticed — in community halls all over the city — that citizens were obsessed with the Edmonton story. What makes this place different from other places? Where did we come from? How does it feel unique? What does Edmonton want and what is stopping us from getting it? What are we most proud of? They spoke in anecdotes and shouted at each other: yes, yes, that’s it!

Only it was not our job, in those meetings, to work on an Edmonton story — or on a single theme that binds the most powerful Edmonton stories. We were in 2040, in vision time. I realized, riding home at the end of one autumn meeting, we were discussing the dénouement of the Edmonton story: the happy ending.

My business partner and I wondered if an Edmonton story, now that we have a vision, could inspire a certain kind of action in the city. If we could figure out a theme, a story Edmontonians could internalize and tell to each other and to people in Toronto and New York and Raleigh-Durham, maybe it would be more valuable than the traditional branding initiatives we had all witnessed. We have found it works for companies, to build their identity and their strategy out of a single unifying story — a master story — rather than a pile of buzz words. It would work for cities too. We had case studies. Here are good examples. Here are ridiculous ones. We talked about Austin, Texas.

The pitch inspired another meeting. Then… we didn’t hear anything. In business I think this is what we call a noble failure. So we started working on it anyway.

We began to notice a common theme, interviewing people: blue collar and white collar, artsy and accountant-y, old Edmontonian, young Edmontonian, immigrant Edmontonian, First Nations Edmontonian. It was different than the theme I had started with, as a hypothesis, which had something to do with northern-ness. Edmontonians don’t think about that a terrible lot, as delicious as it would be for a copywriter and a graphic designer.

I did similar interviews in Calgary, to be sure what we were hearing in Edmonton wasn’t just “the universally good thing of the moment.” The stories and themes were different, just 300 kilometres down the road.

One of my interview subjects summed up the Calgary spirit quite well. His proudest day as a lifelong Calgarian, his most Calgary day, was when the front page of The Globe and Mail was: Imperial Oil moving head office to Calgary. A few days later there was a lifestyle feature in the same national newspaper about humidifiers and cowboy boots: Torontonians will learn to walk the Calgary walk.

He kept it on his fridge until it turned yellow.

So what about Edmonton?


10 thoughts on “Is there an Edmonton story?

  1. I have little to contribute other than what I’ve experienced via a series of anecdotes. I do ask a lot of people who are either new to the city or from out of town and found three common threads in their responses.

    1) It would be nice to see a lot more old buildings around here.
    2) People here don’t seem to be all that sophisticated.
    3) Not a great place to visit, but sure seems to be a great place to live in.

    I like the parallels between Edmonton and Austin, having been there and finding similar eccentricities in the Texas capitol. (it’s especially true politically, seeing how relatively liberal Austin is surrounded by oodles of conservative Lone Star turf; as an aside Texas beef is nowhere near on par with it’s Alberta equivalent but that’s another story).
    The only piece I want to add is the inference that a search for an Edmonton story is a story in itself. Maybe as a counterpoint to doing the Calgary walk is to Explore Enigmatic Edmonton.
    For what it’s worth, I hope this helps.

  2. Edmonton is a story of people ‘settling’ here for a better life based on the natural resources abundant in the area whether it be wild game, fur, farmland, oil, or oil sands. It was and is a place where your last name and your current lot in life doesn’t matter. If you are willing to work hard in the service to these resources you can obtain a better life for you and your family.

    We are a young city of opportunity based on the resources of the land. Some don’t think this is sexy, or apt to build a vision to the future with but I believe this is our identity.

  3. My family were merchants from Glasgow, American Irish who came by covered wagon from the American Dakotas, and mercenaries from the Scottish highlands. Most came around 1900, when Norwood was actually outside of the city proper. One family had a pony who pulled them in a basket cart to Jasper Avenue and they knew people who were living in holes dug in the banks of the North Saskatchewan. They did well, and Jock McNeill was named one of the Edmontonians of the Century a few years ago. Others of us struggled, working as foresters and farmers, or going overseas to work as mercenaries.

    My grandfather told me many stories about the two cities: Edmonton and Strathcona. He told me much about the no-holds barred attack on the Aboriginal population, and the decline of that society. Whatever the story about the rise of Edmonton, it cannot be told without telling the story of how the initial relationship between the first Europeans — which was fair and compromising at least to some degree — transformed into a serious attempt at genocide. So that’s one thing.

    I think another story of Edmonton is about the real infrastructure. What I mean is this: we don’t live “here”, the way that the ecosystem actually demands. By the time most of us turned up, we were able to live above the ecosystem using techniques supported by fossil fuels. Most of us chose to live as if we were in European towns, with much, much milder climates: and we have always imported a lot of our food. What we did not import, we grew by destroying the ecosystem, often with machines run on fossil fuels. That is a huge element in our story, and may also determine our future. In one sense, we are all here as carpetbaggers: living an insanely lavish lifestyle on the profit of our sins.

    So if we have created an insulated, warm existence for ourselves, using carbon fuel and ecosystem destruction to mitigate this challenging climate, are we actually living in what Northrop Frye might have interpreted as a “garrison” mentality? That has to be part of our story, too.

  4. An architect and friend who lives in Vancouver now said to me once, in critique, that the problem with Edmonton is that “there’s no there there.” Some of the “there” can be provided by the physicality of the space, whether nature or the built environment. But the rest is us: our self-belief, and the stories we tell to communicate who we are and what this place is.

    One of the difficulties is that the stories which are true today, or which describe the past, may not be what we want to become in the future. Yet as we describe our vision for the future, we don’t want to lose touch with reality and pretend that we’ve already achieved the result. One of my stories that explains who we’ve been is to describe downtown, where we’ve built Edmonton two and three and four times over on the same lots of land. Wherever you see an empty lot today, a building once stood. And nearly everywhere you see a building, there are the ghosts of two or three predecessors invisibly hovering on that site.

    Rather than be additive in our building, we’ve been through wave after wave of construction and demolition, creating a temporary city, a provisional landscape. What other city of 100 years is on its third City Hall? (Answer: Houston, whose similarities go some way to explaining why this has happened.)

    Is this story of our past also our vision of the future? I hope not. Instead, I propose we integrate an understanding and acknowledgement of who we’ve been into a more positive vision of what we can become.

    • It’s true. This city is buiilt to a large degree on destruction. Both of First Nations culture and the environment (as Nora said) and of our pioneer heritage (as Martin said). This is the worst thing about this city, by far. I want this city to stop doing that, now. Build something without destroying when came before!

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  7. First I realise that I’m late to the discussion, second I don’t really care. Third I’ll respond to M. Kenedy that I thought we were on our fourth City Hall (which doesn’t really diminish his point) and Fourth to N. Abercrombie in regards to the Edmonton Treatment of the native peoples, that Edmonton Treatment simply did not exist. The Canada treatment, yes, the Catholic Church treatment, yes, but neither entity was even close to being influenced in any way by Edmonton or The Edmontonians. I make the distinction of Canadian History in the Edmonton Region and Edmonton History clear and freely, as in one our predecessing Edmontonians were responsible and in the other they were not. Note that I’m certainly not denying the mistakes in local history, just saying they were anything but local.

    But fifth, to T. Babiuk’s question, a resounding yes.

    I can find nothing more definitive nor any personal motivation to search any farther than the fable of John Rowand and Louise Umphreville. John Rowand many Edmontonians realise was the Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton at its apogee before the advent of rail to the West, many many fewer are aware of the girl he shacked up with in the grandest mansion West of Winnipeg and with whom he fathered several children.

    But their story was remarkable, distinct, and forshadowed a great deal of what Edmonton truly is today.

    While John Rowand predictably was British Montréal, and a Company man (that being The Hudson’s Bay Company), Louise was Metis. They apparently met when John fell off his horse and Louise discovered, rescued, and nursed him back to health in a perfect vision of human compassion across maybe any barrier Imperial society could muster.

    Her own background or at least what she was to become as First (as in First Nations, First non-Nomadic female resident, and as in what the Americans might call First Lady) Woman of Edmonton was the region’s preeminent horse breeder and pemican powerbroker (not insignificantly, after the decline of the fur trade, meat packing would remain Edmonton’s primary industry until Leduc No. 1), and thus arguably more powerful than any male in the region, save, again arguably, her “husband”.

    I put husband in quotes above for a reason. Louise, for some reason despite her own father having been French Canadian and presumably Catholic, and Big Mountain John who undoubtedly would have been raised religiously, refused to actually wed, despite numerous visits of a choice of ordainers.

    So what did this story foreshadow that would happen in this most remarkable town? I would strongly argue:

    – The Famous Five – other than such a thread started by Louise, how else do we explain the tough minded women that brought legal ground zero for the entire British Empire to pop. 20,000 E-town?

    – The Edmonton Grads down that same thread.

    – The religious tolerance that saw Ukranian Orthodoxy find its only safe haven in the world

    – The same religious tolerance that saw North America’s first Islamic Mosque built _WHERE?_

    – Racial tolerance that saw all of the first black professional starting quarterback (Warren Moon), black Hall of Fame NHL player (Grant Fuhr, born and raised), black major symphony orchestra conductor since “The Nadir” (William Eddins), as well as the raising of the second black orchestra conductor, and potentially the second NHL HOF inductee (Jarome Iginla).

    – The defiant thinkers who shack up by choice against everything they’d been told, who lead the continent in waste management, LRT creation, propose a theory of media (McLuhan), of learning (Bandura), of curing diabetes in a completely uncontemplatedly stroke of genius?

    Naturally there would be some who would have always preferred that John and Louise’s story not be known (the modestly religious, the outright bigots) and I fully expect we have them to blame that the story has not been told and cherished for all the wealth it has silently spawned in the city.

    Doubtless there are other threads in our narrative, but for influence, importance, and coincidence with the origin of our civic permanence, somehow I think we (other than the bigots and devoted ignoramuses whose loyalties lie outside of Edmonton) should be ready now…

    …to call ourselves Louise and John’s people.

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