As I travel through the Americas and Beyond, I often answer the same questions about my home. As with all places I try as hard as possible to be as balanced as possible about my own home. So here it is….
I live in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. I live in the Canadian Rockies, just a few kilometres from Banff National Park – Canada’s first National Park and North America’s second park after Yellowstone.
My Canada, according to my daily reality, starts in the Rocky Mountains. I live in the Province of Alberta. We are closer to Seattle or San Fransisco than to Ottawa or Toronto. I fly faster to Western Europe than to South America.
When traveling through Central and South America, I am often asked about how easy it is to immigrate to Canada. Other’s simply say; “que frio!” (what cold!) and others ask if I live in Toronto or Montreal.
In the USA, people respond warmly when I say I am Canadian and again talk about the cold or even (ice) hockey!
Alberta has its own identity within the Canadian reality. Typical of so many Albertans (at least half the of the province’s four-million residents) I was not born there. On my mother’s side I can claim deep homesteading roots, but sadly no indigenous link. I am proud of this homesteading lineage and can even say I have branded cattle and worked at the Calgary Stampede as a teenager!
Of course on my father’s side we are immigrants – so the Western Canadian experience is complete!
Living in the mountainous region of a principally prairie province, our mountain communities have a rather distinct identity within that of Alberta. Our ethic mix is somewhat different and our economy is tourism, rather than resource driven.
Certainly many of us mountain people feel we are part of something special. Living in such a pristine environment we are united by nature and certainly by our outdoor lifestyle. Climbing, skiing, biking, pond-hockey – we are active. Very. very active!
Indisputably beautiful, the Canadian Rockies are truly magnificent. The environment is crisp, clean and – dare I say – awesome. Elk, dear, coyotes and even bears will wander into and through our town and hikers should always walk with bear-spray (if interested in bear management and safety I have a close friend, Kim Titchener, who really is the expert!).
We live in a bilingual environment (English / French), though predominately English and despite a conglomerate population of around 25 000 (between Canmore, Banff & Lake Louise), we receive around 3 million tourists per year.
Our communities are in the eastern valleys of the Canadian Rockies, only one hour from the edge of Calgary – Canada’s important oil hub (where I went to university and lived many years). Due to the city’s close proximity we are really not as isolated as one may think and as the population of Alberta grows, so does traffic on the only real route to the mountains.
Life in the Canadian highlands is aggressively seasonal. Culturally, economically and climatically, we sometimes joke: “June, July … Winter.” It is not uncommon to have snow fall out of the sky all 12 months of the year, but summer days are bright and long! Winter days are cold, but extremely dry. I love lush green environments, but for those of us in Western Canada, our most common colour is white. Annual snowfall is actually quite low, but cold temperatures keep the snow on the ground for months!
We live at 1400 meters – not high enough for a visitor to suffer from elevation, but certainly high enough for athletes to gain a training advantage. We are far enough from the ocean that the bulk of our precipitation falls as snow. Skin lotion and sun glasses are requisites when living high and dry. As is sunscreen! Similar to life high in the Andes, temperatures may be low, but the sun’s rays burn quickly.
Economically life is also seasonal. Tourism, retirement and National Park-based, we simply do not have the critical mass to support the impressive infrastructure our valley boasts. Professional jobs are scarce and tourism services dominate employment. While we’d all like to earn more, it has not been since the early coal mining days that people migrated to the Alberta Rockies for well-paid work. Nowadays the first question is not; “what do you earn?” rather; “what did you climb?”
Offsetting the local community and energy is a huge non-resident population. Around 30% of Canmore homes sit empty. Wealthy owners from around the world average some 45 days a year in the community, yet we suffer from a housing shortage.
We experienced a construction boom after the 1988 Olympics and through the 1990’s prices began to rise beyond the means of regular-income people. Condo hotels developed based-upon partial-ownership models and multimillion dollar houses were sold to foreign investors.
Letting the community develop in this manner caused a short-term construction boom, but has resulted in long-term social and economic challenges. I worked in tourism promotion for a few years, but there is not one voice uniting our communities or any real sustainable plan.
Banff does not struggle with non-residency, but as a National Park town, it has its own challenges. Extremely seasonal, very bureaucratic and dominated by a few large tourism companies. Banff National Park is magnificent and important, but for many visitors the tourism services are far too expensive.
As I spend so much time in places much hotter, I must talk about the cold. Canada is of course synonymous with winter. Summer can be surprisingly hot! I have been in Toronto and Montreal in above 40 degree weather (100 F) and even Vancouver experiences heatwaves well into the 30’s. Our Rocky Mountains do not suffer from such heat. Dry and high means even on the hottest days, evening temperatures are tolerable – or even cool.
I often tell people in Central and South America that I live in the the Canadian North-West, up near Alaska. This is only true on a really global map, but as Alaska elicits such clear images of glaciers, mountains and cold, it is an effective comparison. Of course most communities in Alaska are warmer (and wetter), than where I live!
We actually live in Brokeback Mountain Country. Kananaskis.
The real Canadian north is the ‘True North’ – as we say, but almost always the mountains portrayed in images are our Alberta Rocky Mountains. I will quickly qualify this: I love the Canadian (and American) north and have worked and played there. I promise a blog at some point!
When one sees films of Alaska, Colorado or Wyoming, they are often filmed in the Alberta Rockies. I should probably come up with a list of films and advertisements shot in our area – but the list is too long for this blog. I will encourage you to visit and enjoy my brother’s magnificent photography at grahamtwomey.com. He has worked on many films and has a certain love of the Foothills that many people find irresistible.
Day to day life is easy and active. Absolutely everyone is friendly and the environment extremely safe. The cost of living is so unbearably high that many families are forced to leave and this is deeply unfortunate.
The Bow Valley (as we refer to the communities along the Bow River, through the National Park) is a destination for young people from across Canada and around the world to work for a season.
Our workforce would collapse without the Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Chileans and Philippinos. The mosaic is rich and vibrant. Many longer term residents will say they wait a year to befriend a new arrival as the emotional cost of always giving up transient friends is too high. Many people try to invest unsuccessfully and many people who seem to run the economy come and go.
We also have a large retiree population and, quietly, these people drive the community. We are lucky. Our seniors are active and have chosen a lifestyle that encourages longevity. Our clubs such as Rotary and Lions do far more for the community that our lacking Chamber or the fractured economic-development groups.
Dogs outnumber children – but dogs are not necessarily good for our wildlife. Children are. Dogs must be kept on leash (except in very specific areas). As we live with wildlife, it is always important to mitigate interactions between people, domestic animals and the wild animals who live throughout the region. Even such a gentle comment as this about dogs will elicit a response from our dog-loving residents!
Finn goes to a French language school. Not immersion, but francophone. We still have a dual system in Alberta – public and Catholic – his school being (ostensibly) Catholic. We have chosen his school for language, environment and really excellent teachers.
The other great advantage of our life is typically small town. Our children are not latch-key kids nor are they stuck in cars. It is fair to say the general level of fitness in our communities is impressive and although children do have busy, scheduled lives, they can bike or walk to many activities.
Winter and mountain sports dominate culture and we have a large population of actual Olympians. Close to my house is the Canmore Nordic Centre – once of the premier cross-country ski facilities in the world.
Throughout the region we have four significant downhill ski areas. Snow is variable, but if conditions are right, we have the best ‘in-bounds’ snow in the world. I wrote a book about skiing in 1998 (now long out of date), but our challenge remains cost. I repeat – everything is expensive and while I understand the economics locally, as a world traveller, it is hard to justify.
Returning to daily life and our context versus that of Latin American – almost none of us have domestic help (far too expensive and not culturally acceptable). Women are (of course) equal and run as many businesses as men. And when we go out, everyone pays their share – equality has its costs!
Only 15 minutes east, into the Foothills is the Stoney Nakoda First Nation.
The residents of this ‘reserve’ speak Stoney. Many of their youth play on our hockey teams. I cannot say racism is gone, but I am proud to call some of Alberta’s First Nation people my friends. More specifically I am fiercely proud my son admires their culture – what a change from only a few generations past!
Living in the shadow of a national park, in a region isolated from much of the world is special. At its worst, we really do not have to care what goes on in the rest of the world and at its best we are global citizens concerned with environmental stewardship and cultural diversity.
As is apparent from my blogs, I travel extensively – and I love almost all the places I visit – but I also feel deeply attached to my community. Living in an environment comprised principally of immigrants (from across Canada and around the world), we probably listen to more critiques of our communities than in other small towns. I laugh when ‘big city’ folk complain about our lack of ‘whatever.’ That is the nature of small-town living. We are openly a ski community and a mountain community. With just over 20k people, asking for more would be excessive.
Lastly – I would like to mention that I have guided over 100 tours through the Canadian Rockies. I regularly lead step-on tours of Calgary, Edmonton, Canmore, Banff, Jasper & Vancouver in English, French and Spanish. Of course my travel schedule is busy, but please contact us if you are looking for guiding services in Western Canada and we can find the right person for you!
(A footnote about Canada; Canada is really more of a concept than a clear nation-state, particularly within the traditional European model. The Great White North is as much a contrived, post colonial entity as any other country in the Americas, but it has fortunately avoided some of the conflicts that have plagued our hemisphere. Within that reality I share the common experience of living within a context that is both extremely regional, yet transnational. The nation building experience throughout the Americas has been successful to varying degrees, but in all cases, national boundaries do not reflect organic cultural or linguistic boundaries.)