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Kelden Formosa: The consultant class comes for Fort Calgary 

Commentary

Last week the Fort Calgary Preservation Society announced it was no longer time to preserve Fort Calgary. It was, instead, time for the reconstructed North West Mounted Police Barracks, which today serves as a museum, cultural site, and gathering place, to rebrand, refresh, renew, and reposition itself for changing times. 

Guided by marketing consultants, the Preservation Society’s leaders decided that after 148 years as Fort Calgary, the National Historic Site should shed its historic name in favour of a new, more modern one: “The Confluence,” referring to the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. The name fits in well with the surrounding condos of the downtown core. “The Hat,” “The Guardian,” and “The Concord” are now joined by another site defined as modern by the definite article. 

But just as there are many similarly-named condos, there are many river confluences around the world, including at least three more within the city of Calgary. “The Confluence” lacks a sense of place. “Which confluence did you get married at again? Was it the Thompson and the Fraser? The Ottawa and the St. Lawrence? Fish Creek and the Bow?” 

The name Fort Calgary was unique. It was about this place, not just any place. Losing that name feels like losing part of what makes our city itself. 

Now, in fairness to the Preservation [sic] Society, Fort Calgary has been renamed before. One year after was established in 1875 as “Fort Brisebois” by Captain Éphrem Brisebois of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP)—a dashing and daring character whose misbehaviour in the fort’s first winter earned him the ire of both his men and his superiors—his Superintendent James Macleod renamed it Fort Calgary, after a scenic village on the Scottish coast. 

The Preservation Society is not wrong that the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers is noteworthy. In semi-arid southern Alberta, river valleys are a source of life and a corridor for the movement of people, goods, and culture. It’s no wonder the meeting place of these two rivers was important to the Indigenous people of the western prairies, including the Blackfoot (Siksika, Blood, and Piikani), Stoney-Nakoda (Bearspaw, Chiniki, Goodstoney), and Tsuut’ina, all of whom still make their homes nearby today.

Indeed, that’s why Fort Calgary was established here. Having shut down the illegal and ruinous American whisky trade out of Fort Whoop-Up, the NWMP turned their attention northwards to establish a new headquarters. From Fort Calgary, NWMP officers would for a generation bring Canadian law and order to what is now southern Alberta, helping to negotiate treaties, run out the aforementioned whiskey traders, and support settlement across the prairies. It’s a noble past, in many ways, though not without its dark spots. No less than the city that surrounds it, the fort is defined by Canada’s long, complex, and often troubled history with the Indigenous Peoples of this land.

Later, the fort was sold to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The buildings were demolished and the land was turned into a transportation and industrial district. But, recognizing the role the fort had played in our past, the federal government named it a National Historic Site in 1925. Almost fifty years later, the land was purchased for protection by the City of Calgary, which delegated the operation of the city-owned site and museum to the Fort Calgary Preservation Society. Since then, two generations of Calgarian schoolchildren have visited to look back on the lives of the people who started our city. 

In justifying the renaming, the Preservation Society’s president, Jennifer Thompson, argued that it was a way of “owning” the past and present colonial harms of Fort Calgary. She cited the site’s newly chosen Blackfoot name I’táámito’táaattsiiyio’pi (“harmonious meeting place”), written in very small text below “the Confluence” in the new logo, as an example of how this rebranding was about reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. 

One wonders, however, if the money and sweat equity poured into this rebranding could have been better spent supporting the many homeless and drug-addicted people—a disproportionate number of whom are Indigenous—who spend their days just metres west of the fort near the Calgary Drop-In Centre. I wonder how many of them feel more represented by “the Confluence” than they did by the old fort.

Judging by the graffiti nearby, it seems at least some of them sympathize with the NWMP’s early mission of casting out the dealers of addiction and death from the prairies. Practically speaking, the grounds of the fort are often strewn with litter and debris, and there are dozens of hard-to-employ people at its doorstep. Could the tens of thousands of dollars spent on a corporate rebranding have been spent on paying some of them a good wage to do some good in their neighbourhood?

It’s also unclear whether erasing Fort Calgary’s name actually makes more space for Indigenous people to tell their own stories. While some were involved in the rebrand, others’ reactions were mixed. In an interview on Friday, Sheryl-Ann Carscadden, general manager of the Indigenous Gathering Place Society, said she “was caught by surprise” by the renaming and “found it a bit perplexing.” She went on to describe elders and members of her community asking, “Is that an erasure of history, is a renaming marketing to say that history doesn’t exist?” These are fair questions. 

Even in that specific location, it seems we could find plenty of space to share different perspectives on history. For example, just a few hundred metres south of Fort Calgary you will find Enmax Park, named after the utility company owned by the city government. This park houses the Elbow River Camp, an Indigenous site and cultural display held for the last hundred years during the Stampede. I daresay that we do not need a park named after a municipal utility corporation. Calgarians get enough reminders of Enmax on our bank and credit card statements. So why not dedicate that park space to Indigenous people, enabling them to rename it and create a permanent cultural centre on the site, building on the longstanding and authentic Indigenous presence on the Stampede Grounds?

Another possibility: there is a large and empty field of grass just east of Fort Calgary, only filled once or twice per year for special events. Why not return that space, leaving Fort Calgary as it is? Those are just two suggestions—and of course, we should be guided by Indigenous people in deciding where they would like to tell their stories—but either site would offer Indigenous people the chance to tell their own stories, rather than having their stories told for them by the Preservation Society. We don’t need to erase a part of our shared history to accomplish this worthy goal. 

Ultimately, the Fort Calgary renaming is not about reconciliation properly understood. It’s about erasing part of our history that too many would prefer not to think about honestly. It’s corporate rebranding, driven by marketing consultants, and not the collective decision of a democratic community. Indeed, when I asked president Thompson if the Preservation Society ever asked the public about this name change, she said no, they were never directly asked. This is despite the fact that Fort Calgary is a National Historic Site on land owned by the municipal government, and despite the fact that the Preservation Society earns its money mostly through taxpayer subsidies and by renting out its city-owned buildings.

One wonders if the decision not to ask the public was a deliberate one. After all, Calgary is a relatively conservative city, and it seems likely that voters would not have approved of the change were it not presented as a fait accompli. Last summer, when the local government cancelled Canada Day fireworks on the grounds that our country was unworthy of celebration, the city council had to beat a hasty retreat in the face of public backlash. It’s conceivable that a similar reaction might have stopped this rebrand in its tracks. 

This last fact points us to two solutions. First, nobody needs to respect corporate rebrandings of public spaces that lack democratic consent. To me and many others, it will always be Fort Calgary, no matter what the consultants say. Second, leaders in government who oppose the ongoing efforts to rename, tear down, and erase parts of our history have a powerful ally in the common sense of the common people. An incoming federal government could simply impose the requirement that the renaming of any government-funded institution can only take place after a plebiscite held in conjunction with the next municipal election. If the community decides its name no longer reflects the story it wants to tell, then it can say so. But the whole community should make those decisions, not the consultant class. Given the politics of this city, it may be too late to save the name of Fort Calgary, but thoughtful leadership elsewhere can help to end the slow erasure of our history. 

The name Fort Calgary may no longer be on the signs. But the name of the fort and the role it played in the history of this city, province, and country should not be forgotten. And no matter what the marketing consultants tell us, it will still be alright to call the fort what it’s been called for the last 148 years. 

Sean Speer: What is Canadian conservatism?

Commentary

On April 26, The Hub’s editor at large, Sean Speer, participated in a panel discussion at the Civitas conference on basic ideas of the Canadian conservative tradition. Below is a reproduced version of his opening statement. 

I’ve chosen to interpret our panel topic as defining Canadian conservatism. Defining conservatism—especially in a handful of minutes—is a rather presumptuous task. 

It’s a bit apocryphal but apparently William F. Buckley Jr., who I’d argue is the most important conservative public intellectual in the twentieth century, started on a book to define conservatism but never finished it. 

He used to speak regularly on college campuses and whenever he was pestered to provide a succinct definition of conservatism, he would define it as “a paradigm of essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.” That usually shut down the exchange with an overconfident student or faculty member. 

As a young person, I was consumed by the search for what one might describe as an indigenous Canadian conservatism distinct from American conservatism. The search was inspired in large part by Samuel Huntington’s famous observation that conservatism isn’t a universal ideology. It’s contingent and particularistic. It’s committed to conserving a set of ideas, institutions, and values that are unique to a particular jurisdiction or group. A Saudi Arabian conservative is different from a French conservative because he or she is aiming to conserve something different. It stood to reason therefore that there must be something that made Canadian conservatism inherently distinctive. 

I must say that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less motivated by the search for a unique Canadian conservatism. That’s because I’ve come to the view that English Canadian conservatism is essentially part of a North American project—its purpose, by and large, is to conserve a liberal (by which I mean classically liberal) inheritance. It follows therefore that, at least in broad terms, we’re trying to conserve the same ideas and values—if not the same institutions—as U.S. conservatives. 

I see the centre of gravity of English Canadian conservatism as “ordered liberty” or what modern American conservatives call “fusionism.” It represents a basic synthesis of Burkean traditionalism and new world dynamism. It involves a conception of liberty, personal freedom, and individual autonomy that’s rooted in an understanding of institutions, traditions, and norms that impose non-coercive yet powerful constraints on base human instincts and channels them in constructive directions. 

As Stephen Harper said to this conference in 2003: “The truth is that strong economic and social conservatives are more often the same people—and with reason. Except at the extremes…the philosophical fusion is deep and widespread.”

The more interesting question for me, then, is less about what’s distinct about Canadian conservatism per se and more about the differences between English Canadian conservatism and Quebec conservatism. 

But if I may leave that question aside perhaps for our discussion, I thought that I’d spend my remaining minutes reflecting on my own intellectual journey and how I’ve ended up here to the extent that it resonates with others. 

My personal worldview has become somewhat dichotomous. It reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s frequent point that conservatism might be best defined as “comfort with contradiction.”

As a father, I’ve become more conservative in my life and outlook. Yet, as a matter of government and politics, I’ve become more libertarian or liberal. 

There are two main reasons for these developments. First, I’ve become so highly skeptical of state action in the face of such a string of government failures that I have to be careful at times not to succumb to anarchistic thinking. Second, reaching mid-life, which invariably comes with the reflection of one’s mistakes, wrong choices, and inherent fallibility, has caused me to be a bit humbler about politics. 

It’s an interesting consequence of hard-earned wisdom. At the precise moment that I’ve become confident in my own views about virtue and the good life, a reckoning with my own failings makes me skeptical of imposing them on others. My conservatism, in other words, is increasingly rooted in a crooked timber view of humanity. 

A statue of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald is pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

In this sense, I think of Canadian conservatism (and indeed North American conservatism) as fundamentally pluralistic. It’s about preserving a large swath of space for as many of us as possible to seek virtue, live out our conception of the good life, and pursue individual prosperity and stability as members of a liberal democratic polity. 

But I’m not quite a Buftonian libertarian. I’m happy to make some accommodations within this framework that nod to normative judgements about the common good including: 

  • A broadly liberal political economy ought to have limits concerning trade and commerce with hostile states. 
  • A broadly liberal view of personal autonomy ought to accommodate constraints on individual freedom like age verification for online pornography, the criminalization of illicit drugs, or other instances where prudence causes us to intervene on behalf of children and the vulnerable. 
  • We ought to push back against the growing non-neutrality of public institutions as we’ve seen play out on university and college campuses across the country. 
  • A pluralistic public square doesn’t necessarily mean a relativistic one—there’s plenty of scope to argue that certain ideas are better than others and in some cases, this may even require legislating against illiberal actions or cultural practices. 
  • And, of course, I don’t believe that private institutions themselves need to be pluralistic. 

Ultimately, though, my conservatism—and I believe Canadian conservatism (or at least English Canadian conservatism)—is about conserving the principles of the country’s founding ideas and institutions which were liberal and pluralistic. 

We shouldn’t be disappointed by such a heritage. It’s one that had served us rather well for more than 150 years.