By Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
EDMONTON — The Calgary Stampede, increasingly touted by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney as the brass ring for defeating COVID-19, won’t look like the whoop-up of years past if it goes ahead, says the city’s mayor.
Naheed Nenshi says there would still be distancing rules and other changes to keep people healthy and safe at what could be the first major Canadian post-COVID-19 festival.
“We really do have a chance to be world leaders in showing people how you can move forward with a bit of a return to normalcy, but still being very safe,” Nenshi, who also sits on the Stampede board, said Thursday.
“Certainly, this decision would be a lot easier, and this discussion would be a lot easier, if the Stampede were in August,” he added.
“(But) as long as the (COVID) numbers keep on the trajectories they’re on now, then the reward outweighs the risk.”
The world-renowned rodeo and fair is to open July 9.
Stampede spokeswoman Kristina Barnes said plans are for a scaled-down event with a priority on safety. Some indoor events could be moved outdoors.
She said talks continue on how the trademark Stampede parade could look.
The signature event, the chuckwagon races, will not go ahead for safety reasons, said Barnes. Chuckwagon racers have been on a lengthy layoff due to COVID-19.
“It would be extremely difficult to step from practice straight to a high-stakes championship,” said Barnes. “For the long-term health of the sport, it was a decision we had to make.”
The Stampede is Alberta’s signature summer event, famous for rodeos, chuckwagon races, pancake breakfasts, midway rides and alcoholic overindulgence.
In recent weeks, it has taken on political significance.
Kenney has frequently used the Stampede to symbolize a return to happier times should Albertans continue to get vaccinated and observe health restrictions.
He referenced the Stampede multiple times on Wednesday as he outlined a three-stage plan to reopen the economy and expand public gatherings — based on vaccination rates and hospitalizations.
Almost 60 per cent of Albertans 12 and older have received at least one shot.
Kenney said almost all restrictions will be lifted once 70 per cent of those eligible have had at least one vaccine dose. He said that could come as early as June 28.
Comparable provinces, including Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, have similar phased reopening strategies, but not until later in the summer or into September.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, did not appear with Kenney at the Wednesday rollout of the plan, but addressed it Thursday.
“I support this plan, and it was developed with the expertise of medical professionals and civil servants in the Department of Health,” said Hinshaw.
“This plan will work for Alberta, but it will take all of us.”
Just a month ago, Kenney’s United Conservative government was facing COVID-19 case rates that were the highest in North America.
Kenney said he might try to pull together the traditional premier’s Stampede pancake breakfast. A vaccination site on the Stampede grounds is also being explored.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley questioned whether Kenney is following science or risking public health with a speedy reopening for political reasons.
Kenney has faced plunging popularity numbers during the pandemic as well as a backlash from rural supporters and some of his UCP backbenchers over health restrictions they deem heavy-handed and punitive.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said it’s hard not to believe that the Stampede is driving Kenney’s timeline. The premier runs a huge risk if cases surge again or if the Stampede were perceived as a failure, he said.
“Everything has to go right for this. This is the most aggressive reopening of any place in Canada,” said Bratt of Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“Nothing would symbolize back to normal (better) than a Stampede.”
The event is not only an international tourist attraction, but also the unofficial start of a summer of political schmoozing, glad-handing and deal-making.
Political scientist Chaldeans Mensah said Kenney needs a popularity boost, not to mention the opportunity to meet face to face with supporters and to mend fences as required.
“That has hurt him politically. That inability to connect (one-on-one during COVID-19) has been very negative,” said Mensah with MacEwan University in Edmonton.
“He has not been able to quell some of the internal challenges that he’s faced. Stampede would offer him that opportunity.”
Political scientist Lori Williams said Kenney will still have to deal with the anger of those who lost loved ones during the pandemic or who feel he mishandled restrictions and economic supports.
On top of that, there is still a public fight with Alberta’s doctors and vocal concerns about a proposed new school curriculum, said Williams, also with Mount Royal University.
“The depth and breadth of the anger with this government is going to be a huge challenge to overcome.”