North by South West
Most people consider Alberta to be the Texas of Canada. But what do actual Texans think?
by Russell Cobb
It’s a truism – or a cliché, depending on who you ask – that Alberta is Canada’s Texas.
Both places are fiercely libertarian, proudly outspoken and they share a common history defined by ranching, oil exploration, country music and conservative politics. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s been plenty of back-and-forth traffic between the two places, a flow that’s been rich with oil and gas employees but has also included an aspiring cowboy in John Ware, football stars like Warren Moon and even a presidential hopeful named Ted Cruz, among other notable personalities. That traffic has only grown over the last decade as oil and gas prices have shot up, creating a pipeline of people that may soon be accompanied by the actual oil pipeline TransCanada so fervently wants to build between the two places. But the clash between the commonly held belief that Alberta is Canada’s Texas and the more complicated reality can lead to an even bigger shock to the system than an Alberta winter. And trust me, I know all about it.
At first glance, John Gibson might seem like the quintessential Texan import to Alberta. He speaks with a long southern drawl and is known to sport cowboy hats and shoot shotguns. But these first appearances belie one key difference: he’s here to stay. Unlike some temporary American workers who follow the vicissitudes of the oil economy, Gibson has embraced Calgary, where his company, Tervita (he’s CEO), played a vital role in helping the city recover from the floods of 2013. He even measures his life in Stampede time. “I came to Calgary during the Stampede in 2010,” he says. “Everything is relative to the Stampede to me. I follow chuckwagon racing and bet a Loonie on the races. I won two nights in a row and they didn’t let me bet the next night.”
Gibson is something of an outlier when it comes to Texans who move to Alberta. The majority of Texas ex-pats spend a few years in the oil patch before going back south, and that’s in spite of the fact that skilled tradesmen in Alberta often earn double what non-unionized workers from the U.S. south – including Texas – make.
So why don’t they stay? As it turns out, it’s as much about culture as it is about economics. For all their apparent similarities, Alberta and Texas are still different – even very different – places. “Texas was born out of a violent revolution,” says Bert Almon, a Texan who first came to Alberta in 1967. He has spent a career studying Texas and believes that “Texas exceptionalism” is an ideology that – for better or worse – simply doesn’t translate in Alberta.
From an early age in the oil town of Port Arthur, Texas, Almon says he learned about the glorious battles fought by Texas revolutionaries like Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and James Bowie. “Of course no one talked about one of the reasons to separate from Mexico was over slavery,” he says. “We visited the Alamo a lot, [and] the idea over and over was that Texas was very special.” Almon says the idea that Alberta is like Texas is “wishful thinking” among Canadian conservative politicians. “They might have shared histories, but the two places have diverged greatly since I came here in the 1960s.”
Illustration Colton Ponto
Natasha Robbie, a Lethbridge-born freelance writer who moved to Texas with her husband three years ago, says many Canadians aren’t aware of how little the two jurisdictions have in common. “There’s only one Texas,” Robbie says. “It’s a disservice to Alberta to compare it to Texas. There’s this perception in Canada that Alberta is this redneck, renegade, cowboy province. I’ve got news for you: you haven’t seen anything until you come to Texas.”
WHEN I MOVED TO EDMONTON FROM AUSTIN IN 2008, I was told by a colleague at the University of Alberta not to worry about culture shock because Austin and Edmonton were sister cities. “In Austin, you have a huge university, a great music scene, and liberal politics,” he said. “It’s just like Edmonton. The only difference is that people in Edmonton spend their winters indoors and people in Austin spend their summers indoors.”
A local radio DJ in Edmonton echoed that sentiment, telling me that the same bands came through both towns and they both had great folk scenes. Other people told me Calgary was just like my native city, Houston, with gobs of oil money fuelling the conspicuous consumption of lane-hogging SUVs and subdivisions of McMansions exploding beyond the limits of suburbia. Between these two generalizations, I thought I knew what to expect. But it didn’t take long before I started to find holes in the “Texas of Canada” stereotype. I stopped for my first Canadian dinner at a roadside café outside Jasper and ordered a hamburger, eager to taste some famous Alberta beef. “Make sure it’s medium rare,” I told the waitress, who looked at me blankly. “Sorry,” she told me. “It’s cooked well-done.”
“What?” I said in shock. I was raised to believe that a significant portion of the deliciousness of a burger consisted in the amount of bloody juice dripping down your hand as you ate it. The core of the burger should be a dark pink, almost magenta, colour. The waitress said it wasn’t her fault. Well-done burgers were the law of the land. I was in such as state of disbelief about the burger law that I demanded to ask the chef about it. According to him, it was a federal law that ground beef be cooked well-done, at a temperature of 71 C to prevent the spread of E. coli.
Two things struck me about this law: One, it was a perfectly rational and sane food-safety rule; and, two, it was a culinary abomination and an overreach of government power. Wasn’t Alberta supposed to be a libertarian province? In Texas, a law mandating the cooking of red meat might be enough to foment another secession movement. Indeed, Governor Rick Perry is fond of reminding reporters that if Washington keeps messing with his state, Texas just might revisit the treaty that ended the Republic of Texas and created statehood.
IT’S NO SECRET THAT IMMIGRANTS BRING THEIR culture with them when they settle in a new country. For most Texans, that means college football and – no disrespect meant – this goes way beyond the University of Calgary Dinos or the University of Alberta Golden Bears. Anyone who has seen Friday Night Lights knows that football is akin to religion in Texas, an almost tribal identification. “If it’s a Friday night in Texas in the fall, you are going to be at a football game,” says David Holy, a Texan who has called Calgary home since 2001. Part of what maintains a common bond among Texans in Alberta, then, is the connection to football. In Holy’s case, it’s college football: the maroon and white of the Texas A&M Aggies. He is the president of the Association of Former Students for Texas A&M in Alberta and helps organize an Aggie tradition called “Muster” every April, a day of remembrance for fellow alumni.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Aggie identity for A&M alumni. By Holy’s own admission, it’s an almost tribal affiliation that implies a set of beliefs and traditions that must be upheld. Holy says his eldest daughter went to high school in Canada and was shocked by the cultural differences she found when she landed in College Station, Texas, for her first year at Texas A&M. “She described the experience as like going into a funnel,” Holy says. “At the beginning, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, but when you come out, you’ll be a white, Christian, Republican male.”
In Texas, you pick sports bars according to college affiliation. Root for the wrong team in the wrong bar, and you might have a pack of beer-fuelled Texans ready to boot you into the next county. I would never, for example, wear my Texas Longhorn burnt orange into an Aggie bar. Holy says this gang-style sorting doesn’t cross borders into Canada, thankfully. When I admit that I’m a Longhorn (a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin), he says I’d be welcome to an Aggie bar in Calgary. He says the “shared foundation” of being from Texas cancels out the bitter Aggie-Longhorn rivalry. I decide not to mention that most of my formative years were actually spent in Oklahoma, which might best be described as the Saskatchewan of the U.S.
THESE CULTURAL DIFFERENCES EXPLAIN, AT LEAST in part, why so many Texans who move north for work end up returning home. “The vast majority of Texans end up going back after three or four years,” says Holy. But the ones who do stay – mostly “guys with families,” Holy says – cite quality of life as a deciding factor. Holy’s one of them, too. He was born in Houston and spent much of his life working in oil patches from Oklahoma to Russia. Like many Americans following the oil money to Western Canada, Holy initially didn’t think he would put down roots. But after four years in Russia, he decided to give Alberta a chance. “I had no inclination I’d stay,” he said. “My parents are still in Texas. My wife’s whole family is from Houston.”
But the quality of life Alberta offered eventually changed his mind. “Everyday life in Houston can be tough,” he says. “The heat, the traffic, crime, the huge distances. Life here is easier. Of course, we all complain about the winter, but life isn’t as stressful.” John Gibson agrees with that assessment. “It’s something taken for granted here,” he says. “For a guy from Houston, I’m constantly amazed by the low crime rates, absence of true slums. The poorest of Calgarians is better off than the rich in some countries. You also don’t have 50,000 poor kids trying to cross your border.”
To a person, every ex-pat Texan I know has cited an easier-going work culture in Alberta, and that covers everyone from tenured professors to petroleum engineers to temporary foreign workers. When they aren’t fighting authority, Texans are often fighting each other. “There’s a dog-eat-dog mentality down here,” says Robbie. “That’s not what I was used to growing up in southern Alberta.” The push to get your kids into the right schools from the moment they are born – a fact of life in Texas – is virtually unthinkable in Alberta. All of this adds up to a healthier work-life balance, something every worker who has spent time in both places understands. The Mexican food isn’t as good in Alberta, booze is expensive and the burgers are often burned-up hockey pucks. But life is good.
That’s why, like Gibson and Holy, I’m here to stay. To be honest, I don’t always identify with my new home. I don’t play hockey – heck, I can’t even skate. I still prefer my burgers medium-rare, and I will never understand why there is a lineup at Tim Hortons. But living in Alberta gives me the sense of being in a place that is just finding its footing. In the six short years I’ve lived here, Edmonton has begun to transform its downtown from a cold, concrete wasteland to a place bursting with excitement. I’d take Edmonton’s Tres Carnales taco shop over just about any fancy Mexican place Dallas or Houston could offer. Make Something Edmonton, the city’s new branding initiative, isn’t just a hopeful phrase anymore. It’s a reality, and one I feel lucky to be a part of.