As a child growing up in Alberta, I have distinct memories of a film shown in school about the varied regions and cities that make up this great country. One scene that stands out is that of Le Bonhomme and the world-renowned winter carnival in Quebec City. Mountains, cowboys and endless Prairie skies were common- place for this Alberta kid ”” I wanted to see Le Bonhomme!
I’ve never had the chance to visit Quebec City, but on the city’s 400th anniversary, my urge to visit is greater than ever. While I speak with absolute- ly no authority on Quebec City, I can speak about a city that I love and have called home for two decades: Calgary. The two cities offer some intriguing comparisons and contrasts.
It’s a little known fact that Calgary and Quebec City are Sister Cities, part of a program of cultural and economic exchanges between various cities around the world. But it’s hard to think of the two coming from the same lineage. One is refined, mature and somewhat intro- verted; the other rough-and-tumble, brash, a bit of a tomboy.
Consider the differences. Quebec City is mostly French-speaking, with English overheard in the more touristy areas. Calgary is mostly English-speak- ing, with bits of Mandarin wafting through the air.
In the latest census, the popula- tion of Quebec City is 716,000, an increase of 4.2 percent from five years previous. Calgary’s population has surged above the 1 million mark, up 13.4 percent over the same time. Cal- gary overtook Quebec City in the pop- ulation rankings sometime back in the seventies and has never looked back.
Quebec has been called the most European city in the New World. Old, castle-like buildings, some charming narrow streets, and Le Chateau Fron- tenac. Calgary is more like Denver or Houston with gleaming office towers and sprawling freeways. It even has a hockey arena called the Saddledome!
Quebec City lays claim to being one of the oldest European settlements on the continent. Calgary, while it was technically established by the North- west Mounted Police in 1875, never really became much of a city at all until southern Alberta’s first oil boom in the 1920s. In Calgary, a building from the 1960s is revered for its historic value.
Quebec City’s economy is based largely on services, the government sector and tourism. Calgary’s is domi- nated by the oil and gas sector ”” which has boomed and bust with some regularity over the past four decades.
One old, one new. One growing slowly, one quickly. One with castles, one with strip malls. It would be tempting to dismiss the two as polar opposites ”” strangers living in the same house.
But the two Sister Cities actually have much more in common than it appears. Both cities have a tradition of spawning grass-roots political move- ments that challenge the status quo. Quebec City has always been the emo- tional heart of Quebec nationalism, through all of the ebbs and flows of that movement. Calgary spawned the Alberta Social Credit Party, a provincial move- ment that overthrew the existing gov- erning party in the 1930s and held power for nearly four decades. As well, the founding conference of the Cooper- ative Commonwealth Federation took place in 1932. It was also the home of the Reform Party of Canada, which eventually morphed into the governing federal Conservative Party.
Both cities struggle to balance municipal budgets against the pressures of mundane yet critical services like snow removal, law enforcement and filling potholes. And both face challenges of urban development in an age of environmental correctness.
But more fundamentally, Quebec City and Calgary have one thing in common that spans a gap greater than their apparent differences: both are small cities struggling for a piece of the global economy of the twenty-first century. And the future is full of uncer- tainty for each city.
The lengthy history that defines Quebec City ”” and the much shorter one that defines Calgary ”” is not unimportant. But their respective his- tories are in some ways irrelevant to the global economy and the move- ment of people and money.
Both cities find themselves in a tidal wave of tremendous change and are struggling how to eke out a sense of identity that will secure a prosperous future. The competition is fierce, per- haps more so than at any point in the history of the world. Investment, money and people flow from place to place with vicious speed and insensitivity. If you aren’t what the world considers a ”œworld-class city” in 2008, you’re left behind in the heap of yesterday’s cities.
And this is where the cities find themselves kindred spirits after all. Histo- ry has shaped them differently, but only the future matters. Both trying to attract and retain bright, educated young people and investment dollars. Both trying to diversify their economies. Both strug- gling with their own insecurities.
Happy birthday, Quebec City. Even though I’ve never seen you, as a Calgarian, I feel as though I somehow know you.