City of Calgary to tackle affordable housing crisis


There is at least one thing that almost everybody agrees on: there is a housing crisis in Calgary and we need more affordable housing. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The mayor has made the issue a priority and now the city is taking its first tentative steps towards creating an affordable housing strategy. A report was presented to the priorities and finance committee on March 4 outlining some of the issues in Calgary and some possible strategies to address them.

“Today’s report was really about starting us off on a process…. I hate to say community-wide discussion because it will be more than that, but to really examine the whole affordable housing system, the relationship between the federal, provincial and city governments, as well as the role of the private sector and the role of non-profits,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the committee meeting.

While all members of the committee appeared to agree that steps need to be taken to address the current lack of housing, and voted unanimously to move forward with a strategy, the concern centred on finances — no one wants to be left with responsibility without the dollars to back it up. This is of particular concern with both the provincial and federal governments scaling back funding for affordable housing.

“It’s disappointing that we see no interest at the federal level, because cities can’t go it alone, and the issue is larger and requires a more complicated solution than what we can provide with property tax,” says Coun. Druh Farrell in an interview the day prior to the meeting.

The issue will be brought up with the province during negotiations on creating city charters.

The city and the agencies that provide housing are not able to keep up with demand. The combination of high rents, the flood, continued migration to the city and an aging population are all taking their toll, with over 3,000 applicants on the Calgary Housing Corporation’s waiting list.

The city’s exact role would have to determined, but the main thrust of the report places the city as a facilitator between the various housing organizations and developers to ensure that Calgary’s affordable housing stock grows in a way that best serves the community.

The city would likely resort to a combination of tools to grow the stock, including tax incentives, inclusionary zoning and mandated minimum affordable housing units in new developments.

Farrell, who appeared frustrated at Tuesday’s meeting with the lack of momentum on this topic over the years, says it’s time for more radical solutions to address the crisis. She would like to see rules around condominiumization (where lost rental stock would have to be replaced elsewhere), discussions about rent control and mandated affordable housing in new developments, but says the city would need provincial approval for such moves.

“We’re committed to affordable housing,” she says. “What we’re not seeing, we’re not seeing the market provide affordable market housing and that is one of the big struggles in Calgary.”

Of course, when dealing with issues of housing and homelessness, it’s not as simple as throwing up affordable units and walking away. There are various levels of need under the umbrella of affordable housing, from those working and unable to afford Calgary’s sky-high prices, to those who require services and support in transition from homelessness.

Judy Lapointe lives in a Calgary Homeless Foundation building operated by the YWCA in Lower Mount Royal. The former computer programmer, who now lives on AISH, is stressed at the moment because her building is transitioning to a more secure facility housing people with greater needs, and essentially forcing those tenants already in the building to move. This has left her suffering from anxiety.

“About three weeks ago, they gave everyone in the building notices that they have to move,” says Lapointe. “Our worker was on vacation at the time, so you just traumatized trauma victims and provided zero support whatsoever.”

She is critical of the foundation, accusing it of not listening to tenants, not providing enough warning for evictions or building changeovers, and for programs she says set you up for failure. “I’m so sick to death of being told that I’m mentally ill, when my behaviour is a reaction to mentally ill programs,” says Lapointe, who lists delusion, schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar and personality disorder as her diagnoses. “Nobody would be acting normally and healthy if you’re in a box that says you’re set up to fail.”

Louise Gallagher, communications manager for the Calgary Homeless Foundation, which supports the city’s move to a housing strategy, says all those currently in Lapointe’s building will be provided housing and that the organization tries to work with all residents to address their concerns.

That level of complexity in dealing with individuals is just one aspect of the housing issue, highlighting just how long it might take to muscle through details at city council. But with more people moving to Calgary, a rental market with approximately one per cent vacancy and the average price for a single family home sitting at $482,529 in February, this is a problem that is going to continue to grow.

“Like it or not, this is a democracy, and when the problem affects the majority, the majority will create the change, but not until it reaches the majority — and we’re nowhere near that yet,” says Lapointe. “But the rate and speed at which it’s happening, it won’t take long.”

Theatre Outré outrage unfounded


** Update **

Theatre Outré has released a new statement that contradicts its earlier claims. The new post says the theatre is not closing and says there are no issues with the city or their landlord, but only with the alleged homophobic neighbours in their building. More on that if we can confirm the content of the letters.


Outrage over the closure of a Lethbridge queer theatre space, Bordello, has been picking up steam on social media throughout the day after the company, Theatre Outré, posted a damning letter on its website. The outrage, however, might be a wee bit overblown.

In the company’s post, it claims that homophobic letters from two tenants in the building where Theatre Outré is developing a new theatre space has changed the city’s mind when it comes to the company’s right to operate. “A bureaucratic process, which we were close to finishing, was road-blocked and our venue, therefore, is no longer allowed to operate for the purposes of theatre performance until we receive approval from a city council,” it reads.

“Unfortunately, in the span of just the past few days, ignorant and homophobic neighbouring tenants in the McFarland Buidling have made it clear in various ways that we are not welcome in their midst. Two hateful, hurtful and defamatory emails were sent to our landlord questioning our integrity based on moral grounds and challenging our co-existing alongside their businesses, including an insurance broker and a music school for children.”

The post goes on to point out some horrible things that were in the letters, which have justifiably outraged many. If true, the allegations are troubling. The authors of the alleged letters are outed on Theatre Outré’s website.

The one problem in this context, according to Lethbridge city councillor Jeff Carlson, who is also friends with the members of Theatre Outré, is that the letters have nothing to do with the issues around the space.

“The club Bordello has operated for a couple of years in Lethbridge now, they’ve just moved to a new location and apparently they didn’t bother to get any business license or development permit,” says Carlson.

“The city relies… a lot of it is complaint driven. Our development staff doesn’t drive around trying to find where businesses have popped up. So what happened is two people came down and said ‘do you know about this?’ And they said ‘actually no, we don’t have a development permit.’ So we started the process and that’s where it’s at. They just need to apply for the permit and I think everything will be fine.”

Carlson, as any city councillor would be, is troubled that the city will be given a black eye over this situation and stresses that Lethbridge is not an intolerant place. He does, however, acknowledge that intolerance does exist, as in any other place. But again, “it has nothing to do with their development permit.”

He’s also concerned that the post went up without the courtesy of a phone call from his friends at Theatre Outré and says he could have calmed this situation down before it heated up.

Carlson has not seen the letters in question, but a friend who is a board member of Theatre Outré and another who works with them from time to time read him sections of the letters over the phone. “They also read me parts of the landlord’s response which I thought was really professional and excellent and supported the Bordello,” says Carlson.

The other claim made by Theatre Outré on their website is that they will be forced to be licensed as an “adult theatre,” another claim that Carlson finds puzzling. He says the only place he’s seen mention of that is in the homophobic letters written by the building tenants.

“We’ve had productions of Hair and Oh! Calcutta! where there’s nudity on stage and we didn’t make our local theatre companies classify themselves as adult theatre, so no, I don’t think that definition applies at all,” he says.

“The two definitions I think will be most applicable would be either private club, like the Moose Hall or something like that, or entertainment establishment, and unfortunately they’ve applied for neither as far as I know.”

And how long is the process once you do apply?

“I think our development officers were trying get them through so it would be done by February 11th. It’s not overly onerous for something like this.”

Theatre Outré has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Calgary’s slow but steady cycling plan

Photo by Josh Naud

Photo by Josh Naud

Calgary is the poster child for the poetic notion that things end not with a bang but a whisper. It’s the lead up to that silent, accepting conclusion that causes all the problems. Need proof? Look at the Peace Bridge, or the bike lanes on 10th Street N.W. Infrastructure changes don’t come easy to Calgary, but once they’re complete, so too are the complaints. Usually.

There are more changes to come.

After adopting the cycling strategy in 2011, the city is moving forward in its goal to make Calgary more amenable to two-wheeled transportation. Three staff have been hired — a planner, an engineer and an education co-ordinator — and new lanes have been set down, including the controversial separated bikes lanes opening soon on Seventh Street downtown — the first separated lanes in Calgary. The strategy covers everything from a public bike rental system, to showers and lockers at businesses, to paint and concrete on city streets.

Tom Thivener, the city cycling co-ordinator who’s responsible for overseeing the implementation of the strategy, says he’s pleased with the progress made so far despite the challenges associated with each project.

“Right now we don’t have a whole lot of Calgarians out bicycling — I mean, we do, we have thousands of cyclists, but it’s still a small proportion of the overall traffic situation,” he says. “As that increases, as we build more facilities and more people come out, it certainly will make it a lot easier to get these projects out.”

The project that has caused headaches for the city and for Thivener recently is the Seventh Street cycle track, a dual lane separated bikeway that leads from the Peace Bridge into downtown. Business owners have expressed concerns over access, some people complain that such a relatively small piece of cycling infrastructure costs around $1 million, while others see the lanes as unnecessary when busier and more dangerous routes need infrastructure.

“There’s some well-defined rules as to where you put physically separated, where you put a line, or where you put nothing,” says Gary Beaton, president of the Tour de Nuit cycling advocacy organization and no stranger to doling out harsh criticism. “And obviously, one of the roads where you do nothing is Seventh Street, where we’re blowing a million bucks on a useless bike lane.”

Beaton, who says the cycling strategy is merely a document “meant to pacify loudmouth cyclists,” would rather see the city investing in busier traffic routes along main arterial roads, including Macleod Trail, to better accommodate commuters and get more people on bikes. He laments the fact that the city passed over the opportunity to include bike lanes on Elbow Drive when it was recently redeveloped, and his group has been pressing for separated lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the downtown core for years.

On the other side of the debate in Calgary’s cycling community is Bike Calgary, another advocacy organization that is in frequent communication with the city. Kimberley Nelson, a board member with Bike Calgary, says her group is “definitely happy” with the progress in cycling in Calgary although they’d like to see things happen a bit faster — highlighting the fact that the Seventh Street lanes took almost two years to build.

“They look great, I’m really excited about them,” she says. “They open the first week of July, they’re on time and they’re on budget, so we’re excited about them, but there currently are no connections at the moment. They’re coming, but they probably won’t get done for another year and a half or two years because they’ll follow that same engagement process.”

According to Nelson, the city is looking at several options for those elusive east-west connectors downtown, including the Fifth and Sixth Avenue lanes that Beaton is so focused on. Thivener highlights the fact that the 10th Avenue South lanes aren’t working and that the city is looking at options south of the tracks as well. Nelson, however, is right to be worried about the length of the engagement process.

“The cycle track network is big news and a lot is going to be happening over the next few months,” says Thivener. “Lots of engagement.”

Leah Gardner, a commuter cyclist who works at The Bow building downtown, is excited for the coming changes, but like most she’s impatient. “I’m under the impression that we should just bike lane the whole thing overnight and let everyone cry for a couple of weeks and then get over it,” she says.

She, along with Nelson, point to the quickly subdued controversy over the Peace Bridge as an example of Calgarians needing to see the finished product in order to accept it. “Car2Go it,” says Gardner. “One day they weren’t here, the next day they were all here. It’s not like people are going to move, it’s not like people are going to leave the city if there are separated bike lanes.”

“Calgary is a show-me city,” says Nelson, adding that “once you give people the proper infrastructure and give them a way to utilize it properly and effectively, I think you’re going to reduce that animosity.

It’s easy to see why people are frustrated. Calgary has long been a dead zone when it comes to cycling infrastructure, lagging far behind Canadian cities like Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. Although there has been some positive progress, including the lanes on 10th Street N.W., there have been some failures, like the “floating lane” that’s only open during rush hour on 10th Avenue South, which even Thivener admits doesn’t work.

Although the change is likely to be slow for the foreseeable future, there is hope in terms of results.

“We have 17 projects going on so there’s lot of things in motion,” says Thivener. “A lot of it is clean-up work, honestly, from last year’s projects. Trying to make sure the projects are installed right and make sure if we’re putting down a bike lane that it’s a common-sense bike lane and not get too tricky with it. Have it be straightforward so that bicyclists can just pull up and understand what it is and how it should operate. Same from the motorist’s point of view.”

With so many pokers in the fire, the pressure is on for Thivener and the city. Outstanding issues include bike racks on city transit, co-ordination with parks on pathways connections, implementation of new lanes and, according to Beaton, a cultural shift in the city’s transportation department.

“The problem’s not council,” he says. “The problem’s the bureaucracy.”

Others are more optimistic. Nelson points out how much things have improved over two short years. “It’s amazing,” she says. “The level of engagement we have with the city, the fact that they’re inviting us to the open houses and actually actively seeking out our participation is just so much better than what it used to be.

“Even just two years ago when the 10th Street lanes went in and it was like, ‘surprise!’ That’s not happening anymore and that’s just leaps and bounds already ahead of what we used to do.”


Do you want to get involved in cycling on a community level? Bike Calgary is looking for neighbourhood representatives to gather information on cycling issues and pass them along to the organization’s representative in each ward. It’s part of a strategy to cover issues in every corner of the city and relay those to bureaucrats and politicians. If you want to get involved, contact Bike Calgary at .

If you want to follow the progress of the city’s bicycle program, like their Facebook page at for updates.

Alberta’s craft brewers in war of words with importers


It could be labelled as an ideological battle, but that might be too exteme. Is it a story of the hometown hero versus the outsider? Is it about fairness? Selection? Consumer choice? Well, this battle of the beers is technically about all of those things.

Alberta’s small brewers are trying to pressure the provincial government to change the rules for beers imported from other jurisdictions, which can mean Belgium or B.C.

As it stands, small- and medium-sized brewers get a tax break in Alberta, whether they brew here or not. It can mean a difference of 78 cents per litre. The problem is, other provinces don’t offer the same incentives, meaning Alberta’s craft brewers are at a disadvantage compared to their peers.

If a brewer from Alberta wants to enter the B.C. market, for example, they’re faced with a protectionist provincial system.

The latest salvo in the war of words in this debate is from craft beer importers and some liquor store owners. Vern Raincock, president of beer importer DeLancey Direct, doesn’t want to see the rules changed, at least not in Alberta. After all, it will affect his bottom line. He worries the increased costs will mean a reduction in Alberta’s excellent beer selection.

“I do understand the frustrations of the Alberta craft brewers, but I think that we’re going about it wrong,” says Raincock.

“What we need to do is work with the Alberta government, as well as the federal government, in closing down these barriers to trade within our own country.”

So, everyone wants the same thing. Sort of. The craft brewers and Raincock want a level playing field for brewers in Canada, but whereas the Alberta craft brewers want to add protections similar to those imposed on them in other provinces, Raincock wants those protections eliminated from the country entirely.

“Let’s get government out of the way of all brewers in Canada — not only the Alberta government, but all governments,” says Raincock. “Let’s have an excise tax rate like is done in the United States. Once the label is approved federally, we should have the ability to move it anywhere we damn well please and just pay one entity.”

As one would expect, there isn’t a lot of disagreement on this point, at least theoretically.

Jim Button, from Village Brewery, says Raincock’s suggestion is great as a long-term goal, but doesn’t address the disadvantage small brewers currently face in this province.

“Well, in a perfect world, that’s the way it should be, because if we go to any other province, we’re having the exact same situation that we’re suggesting they have,” he says in reference to changing Alberta’s tax structure.

“The last thing we want to do is block anybody, we just want to create an environment where it makes (craft brewing) actually viable.”

Button argues that it’s difficult to make a profit as a small brewer in Alberta, and if we want more breweries producing craft beer here, the rules have to change to ensure the brewers are competitive.

For Raincock, it goes beyond taxes; it’s also about enforcing rules and making sure the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) cracks down on alleged graft in pubs and restaurants.

“The other issue too is that we know that hockey tickets and other graft have been offered by major brewers within the province, and I don’t believe the AGLC is monitoring the situation where a small craft brewer enters a bar and is told, basically, that there’s no sense selling draft beer here because the lines are owned by somebody else,” says Raincock. “That’s commonplace in Alberta.”

The argument around tax incentives has picked up steam since August of last year, when 11 small Alberta brewers sent a letter to Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk asking for the rules to be changed. The government intially promised action, but has yet to deliver.

The craft brewers’ letter calling an end to the Alberta tax break was followed by another letter sent on behalf of Canada’s National Brewers, representing the big producers in the Canadian beer market, which essentially supported the craft brewers. The letter said Alberta’s system was set up to encourage the growth of craft brewers, create a strong craft beer sector and offest economies of scale. “Over time, the Alberta tax subsidy has grown from a program that achieves these three objectives to one that unfortunately achieves none of them,” reads the letter.

Although surprising at first blush that the big boys are supporting the little Alberta competitors, it comes down to what this fight is all about and who the real competitors are — the cheap beer producers.

“You can imagine, that’s where all this started,” says Button.

Government closes program, blames Mount Royal College


According to an email circulated to Mount Royal University staff by president David Docherty, and obtained by Fast Forward Weekly, the university was forced to close two centres that evaluated internationally educated nurses in Edmonton and Calgary, despite recent claims by minister of health Fred Horne.

In an interview with the CBC, Horne said the decision to close the program was made by the university. In the email from Docherty, however, he writes: “This statement obscures the true nature and depth of our discussion on this issue with ministry officials dating back as early as July 2012.”

Docherty goes on to explain that the provincial government would not commit to long-term funding of the program despite the need to renew multi-year leases on the required spaces.

“We felt it would be fiscally irresponsible to commit to new multi-year leases without a written commitment from the program funder,” writes Docherty. “We informed the government that without their funding commitment we were unable to accept the risk of signing multi-year leases for space for an unfunded program, and for which Mount Royal would be wholly responsible.

“On March 11, the government replied that they accepted Mount Royal’s notice to close the two centres though such notice was never submitted nor desired by our institution. The government further requested a detailed budget for winding down the program, which was due March 18.”

Docherty writes that the university agreed to host the program as “a service to Albertans based on a funding grant from Alberta Health.”

The loss of the program will make it more difficult for immigrants with nursing credentials to work in Alberta.

Howard May, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, could not offer any information on the closing of the program or whether program funding will be reinstated. He reiterated the statement that Alberta Health accepted the closing of the centres “in light of their inability to reach a lease agreement that aligns with the long-term goals.”

May says it’s not the result of a program funding cut and that Alberta Health is looking at alternatives for the program down the road, but he couldn’t confirm whether or not funding exists for the program at this time or will in the future.

“There’s an effort going forward to look at what an alternative might look like, but it’s too early to talk about a timeline for that…. It’s premature at this point.”

The elimination of the program is outside the recent budget cuts imposed on post-secondaries in Alberta. Mount Royal’s overall funding will be reduced by 7.3 per cent.

We need beer here


Bob Sartor, president and CEO of Big Rock. Photo by Drew Anderson

Did you know that beer sales in Alberta in 2012 were almost $1 billion? Let that sink in for a moment. That’s right, sit back, sip that brew and let that number settle — $1 billion. Now think about how many microbreweries we have in the province, or better yet, consider that Calgary, a city of 1.1 million thirsty souls, has only three microbreweries (plus some brewpubs). With those numbers alone, it’s probably safe to say that we need more local brews.

While the market share of microbreweries in our province hasn’t been pinned down by an august organization like Statistics Canada, it hovers around three per cent, according to those who work at the breweries, leaving an astonishingly large market share to lure. In the States — far ahead of Canada in terms of embracing microbreweries and innovative beers — some markets report a craft brew take of 10 to 40 per cent. Calgary needs more beer. And those that are already brewing? They say bring it on.

“Competition, I suppose, is one word for it, but overall I think a better beer scene with more brewers benefits everybody involved at this level,” says Brian Smith, the operations manager at Wildrose Brewery.

Wildrose is currently working on a new facility that will allow it to at least double its capacity right off the bat, and ramp up to approximately seven times its current level in the future. “We’ll be able to meet demand,” says Smith, sitting in the brewery’s Tap Room. “Right now we’re just doing all we can to get enough beer out the door. It will be nice to have enough space and actually be able to get ahead of things a bit, get our sales guys out there firing on all cylinders.”

In other words, one of three craft breweries in Calgary is struggling just to meet demand, and it’s not even the big guy on the block.

Out in the sprawling, wide-lane expanse that is the Foothills Industrial Park, the green metal roofs of Big Rock’s complex offer a respite from gravel, dust and car parts. Surprisingly, Bob Sartor, the president and CEO who faced the impossible task of taking over from the larger-than-life Ed McNally, agrees with Smith on the need for more faces in the local beer scene.

Sartor is a businessman whose last job was CEO of Forzani Group Ltd. Unlike Smith, who has 15 years of brewing experience under his belt, including time at Edmonton’s Alley Kat brewery and at Wildwood brewpub on Fourth Street S.W., Sartor rose through the ranks selling consumer goods, or at least managing the operations that did. “When I was in the sports business, once we turned Forzani around and got it fixed, then it was ‘Okay, who can we gobble up? How big can we get? And who’s not going to make the cut?’ It’s very different in craft beer. Craft beer is by its very nature collaborative.”

Okay, so everyone plays nice. But what does that have to do with the need for more small breweries in the city? It doesn’t matter if a bunch of beer lovers get together to talk over the mash tun, what matters is the effect it has on the city, in a general sense and in an economic sense, right?

At a recent webinar presented by Calgary Economic Development and appropriately hosted at Village Brewery, Scott Metzger, an economist and the owner of Freetail Brewing Company in San Antonio, broke it down. Although his numbers related to the U.S. market, they’re just as applicable here.

“One of the big things to highlight is the jobs that these breweries create,” says Metzger to a small crowd at the Calgary gathering. “One of the things I really want to emphasize is the relative inefficiency of craft breweries.”


That may seem like a bad argument to make, particularly to a crowd at a Calgary Economic Development event, but let’s hear him out.

“The beer market as a whole doesn’t necessarily have to grow in order for the economic impact of the beer industry to grow,” he says. “That’s because as the activity shifts away from large, multinational producers to small brewers, by default more jobs will be created, more economic activity will be created. So that labour inefficiency, although it’s not something that a business owner or manager is necessarily usually proud of, it’s that inefficiency that’s driving all of the economic growth.”

According to Metzger’s numbers, a large multinational like Anheuser-Busch employs approximately 116,000 people worldwide in its massive operations. It sells approximately 335 million barrels of beer, or about 3,000 per employee. In the U.S., craft brewers employ approximately 3,000 people and sell about 112 barrels per employee. It’s a symptom of small breweries that could offset the 20 per cent decline in brewing industry employment in Canada between 1999 and 2009 according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

More jobs means more money. That’s a pretty basic economic truth, one that even beer drinkers and writers can understand. But that’s not the only benefit to a city, a province or a country when more craft beer hits the market.

Metzger says that craft brewing has a disproportionate effect on community revitalization and tourism than other retail industries — opening brewpubs, offering local fare for diners and drinkers, and supporting the local community.

It’s something that Jim Button of Village Brewery understands well. At the same gathering, Button highlighted community as the driving force of Calgary’s newest craft brewer. The company decided to eschew the regular route of having a few large investors and opted to reach out into the community to bring more people on board. It was, as Button says, a challenge, but one that reflects the intent of the fledgling operation. “Everybody had different answers, but the one thread that went through all of them was to be a big part of the community,” he says of the people behind the brand. “So when we started building the brewery, we had that at the forefront all the way through.”

It’s a theme that runs through all of Calgary’s craft brewers, including the relatively large Big Rock. “Every craft brewer that I know wants to give back to the people who have honoured it with the purchase and consumption of their beer,” says Sartor. “So what I see is way more thriving music and arts scenes, theatre scenes, in those areas where craft beer is very prevalent to where it’s not.”

And there’s certainly room for more product. In 2010, the most recent year numbers are available, Canada was the sixth largest importer of beer in the world. Most of that comes from the Netherlands, the U.S. and Mexico. Our local shelves are bursting with options, but there is limited local variety, and a lot of those imports reflect the desire of consumers to have options beyond the mass-produced Canadian fare of the past.

If you go to a store in B.C. there are sections stocked with an abundance of local products from Vancouver, Victoria, the Interior and down the coast from the beer meccas of Portland and Seattle.

“I think we’re under-represented for sure,” says Smith. “Again, hopefully that will rectify itself in the future. I mean, you look at places like Vancouver, it’s still growing — I think there are eight or nine breweries that are supposed to be opening there this year.”

There are challenges, including a lack of investor interest in breweries. Regulations in Alberta also mean that you can’t start off really small and work your way up. You have to demonstrate the ability to produce at least 5,000 hectalitres the day you open, blocking the rise of nanobreweries (yes, that’s a trend) and preventing small entrepreneurs from entering the market. Although Alberta offers tax incentives to small brewers, not many have taken the plunge.

Amidst the dearth of local breweries, awareness about good, craft beer is growing exponentially. National, Craft Beer Market, Beer Revolution, Bottlescrew Bills and other pubs offer a dizzying array of beer styles and breweries on their taps. There are beer dinners, introducing throngs of Calgarians to the joys of beer and food pairings. If you walk into most liquor stores, the shelves are bursting with craft offerings that would have been unheard of a few short years ago.

Wildrose and Big Rock both plan on experimenting more and offering different styles of beer, and Village is now going full-tilt, so things are getting better here. What we really need, and what can only help our beer/arts/dining/tourist scene, is more local beer to feed a thirsty population.

Looking back on Calgary’s year as Cultural Capital


Cover design by Josh Naud

Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the beginning. Calgary 2012, as in the people who form the organization, had an impossible task. How do you organize, create, fund and promote Calgary’s year as a cultural capital of Canada and please everybody? Well, you don’t. It’s one of the flaws of the now discontinued federal program. People expect mana from heaven, but that was never going to happen, nor was it intended.

Whenever you create a cultural event, you’re going to have people who find it lacking. Annual festivals have the benefit of learning lessons and making changes year over year. Calgary 2012 has no such luxury. Here’s your millions of dollars, go make something happen. Quick. Oh, and by the way, here are some guidelines you have to follow.

When Terry Rock, a Calgary 2012 board member and the president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development (CADA), one of five organizations that created the winning bid for Calgary, is asked whether Calgary 2012 faced an impossible task, he doesn’t even take a breath before answering. “Yes. We’ll never satisfy everyone, but I guess the questions I’d ask is do you not want to try for cultural capital of Canada? Look at the momentum that we have. So what should we do now? Should we just say that was done? Let’s take advantage of the momentum and try to do something more audacious next time.”

From Rock’s perspective, and for many others, the year was a total success. Millions of dollars ($5.83 million to be exact) poured into the city’s arts and culture scene in the form of grants, artist fees, legacy programs, marketing and promotion, production, administration and community engagement; individual artists received funds for projects that would likely never have happened otherwise; Nuit Blanche took over Olympic Plaza for a night; a new comedy festival, YYC Comedy Fest, got its feet with funding; Invest YYC, a new crowdsourced funding site for local projects, was created; and now, CADA is in the third phase of engagement for crafting a new arts plan for the city to be presented to council on June 5. These are just a few examples. Oh, and there was that lip dub video to the tune of “Sweet City Woman.”

“I guess I’m still unclear of how Sweet City Woman Lip Dub was really making us a cultural icon,” says local artist Sharon Stevens.

It’s something echoed by another artist, Eric Moschopedis. “At the end of a 12-month period of time, there’s nothing clear to show what happened except for a really ridiculous and embarrassing video.”

Okay, so there’s the video, where a gaggle of Calgarians, including burlesque performers, community groups, dancers, Dan the One Man Band, hell, even my two little nieces, danced around Olympic Plaza while the Stampeders’ song played. But let’s leave that alone. Suffice it to say it was a divisive decision.

Both Moschopedis and Stevens benefited from Calgary 2012 and mix the positive with the negative when discussing it. Stevens had a great experience as an artist-in-residence with the International Avenue BRZ, where she has been hired on as a sort of artistic liaison. Moschopedis says he and his partner Mia Rushton were able to do projects they wouldn’t otherwise have done, including a residency at the Calgary airport.

“I think lots of individual artists actually had some positive experiences out of it,” says Moschopedis. “Mia and I were certainly able to do a lot of different projects under the banner of 2012, or the funding of 2012 and whatnot, but I think ultimately, outside of that, I don’t think it had that much of an impact on the city or the arts community.”

According to numbers provided by Calgary 2012, 70 per cent of the grants it provided went to individual artists, cultural organizations and heritage organizations that are not currently supported by a municipal grant program.

Karen Ball, executive director of Calgary 2012, doesn’t shy away from discussing the issues some in the arts community have raised. “I think that the criticism that was borne on the cultural capital, and maybe still exists, I think still exists, is probably most strongly rooted in a bigger issue, which is how are our individual artists supported and recognized by the city,” she says. “A cultural capital has to be all things to all people. Therefore it’s not able to get to the sharpest end of the stick, which is how are we supporting our professional artists and creators.”

When the cultural year was just getting started, Moschopedis worried about the boosterism and the philosophy of creative cities that underlied Calgary’s efforts, but in the end, he says, it didn’t much matter. “So if there’s good news, I don’t think 2012 did that very well,” he says now in reference to marketing efforts. “So I think we’re okay on this end. We kind of came out of it unscathed in a lot of ways.”

For Rock, the year succeeded in large part because it brought communities together and engaged disparate individuals, organizations and groups. “The theme ‘creative, connected, communities’ came out really clearly throughout all of that work [leading up to the bid], so we put a bid together that had those flavours in it. And then what Karen and her team did really took that to another level and really actually achieved widespread engagement across the city.”

Part of that engagement is ongoing. As mentioned before, CADA is now in the third phase of drafting a comprehensive arts plan for the city. After community consultation, a citizen’s panel funded in part by Calgary 2012, and now a stakeholder process with members and supporters of Calgary’s arts community, the intention is to guide the city towards better funding, long-term planning and giving the city’s arts and culture more stability.

“In a role like mine, you have to have a really long-term perspective,” says Rock. “So I can understand people wondering ‘what did we get for this?’ right now, and wanting to see it paid off, but I think the reality is, what we got from this was a lot of momentum, a lot of really broad-based engagement in culture in our city that maybe was there before, but it wasn’t so visible.

“I just say that this is the biggest opportunity that this sector has had to walk in and say ‘okay, here’s where we want to go now.’”

So what is the legacy of 2012? For Ball it’s the barriers that were broken down between communities; Invest YYC crowdsourced funding; the Cultural Leaders Legacy Awards, which will be handed out yearly for the next four years; a three-year performance creation project celebrating the area’s native heritage called Making Treaty 7; publication of a book looking at the year; and the arts plan, though she’s cautious about stealing too much credit for that last one.

Stevens, despite some criticism of the event both before and now at the tail end of the year, remains “cautiously optimistic” about the future, citing developments outside the purview of Calgary 2012 including the Calatrava bridge, Jaume Plensa’s statue in front of The Bow, and Ron Moppet’s East Village mural as signs that Calgarians are starting to get it.

And Moschopedis? He still sees hope as well. “If we were to frame it in a certain way, there were a lot of small seeds planted this year and maybe they’ll blossom into something,” he says.

In the end, that’s where we’re at. There are no solid answers. Will Calgary 2012 prove to be the catalyst for a cultural awakening in the city? Will nascent events like Nuit Blanche and YYC Comedy Fest continue without the money from the cultural capital? Will Making Treaty 7 improve our understanding of the area’s native inhabitants?

“I think what will be written about what we get from this, we won’t know, unfortunately,” says Rock. “I mean there’s a lot of great experiences and a lot of learning from the year that we can point to right now about how strong culture is through all parts of Calgary, but it will be whether we can capitalize on the momentum that we’ve got now and turn it into something that has broad-based backing from community leaders, political leaders and people who aren’t normally considered part of the formal culture sector.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.