Calgary, city on the Bow River in southern Alberta, Canada, at the entrance to a major route across the Rocky Mountains. Calgary is known as the Energy Capital of Canada because a number of oil companies have headquarters in the city. It is one of the country’s most important business centers. The surrounding region produces wheat, beef cattle, and natural gas, while the nearby mountains draw many tourists. The mountains also cause Calgary’s climate to be rather dry. It has only 399 mm (15.7 in) of precipitation per year. Summers are pleasantly mild, with an average daily July temperature range from 10° to 23° C (49° to 74° F). Winters are long and cold, with an average daily January temperature range from -16° to -4° C (4° to 26° F), but are relieved by frequent warm winds called chinooks.
Calgary has the most striking setting of all of Canada’s prairie cities. It lies at the very edge of the high plains, where they rise into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, on a site deeply carved by the Bow and Elbow rivers.
The river valleys are natural corridors for roads and railways and have had a strong influence on Calgary’s layout. In the eastern sector of the city the valleys are largely used for industry, but elsewhere they provide attractive sites for homes, parks, and recreation facilities. These include Heritage Park, a reconstructed pioneer village; Canada Olympic Park, which was built for the Winter Olympics in 1988; and the Calgary Zoo, with its botanical garden and its Prehistoric Park, which displays life-size models of the dinosaurs that once lived in Alberta.
The downtown district sits on the widest part of the valley floor. It stands out as a dense clump of tall, modern office buildings, connected to one another through an elevated network of pedestrian bridges called the Plus 15 System. Many of Calgary’s public and cultural facilities are also located downtown. Among them are Stephen Avenue Mall, a pedestrian street lined with historic buildings; Devonian Gardens, a rooftop conservatory; the Glenbow-Alberta Institute, an internationally famous museum and archive; the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts, where the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the city’s leading theater companies are based; and Olympic Plaza, the main downtown square. Petro Canada Tower, the city’s tallest structure at 55 stories, is one of several tall buildings that dominate downtown. Also nearby are the Alberta Science Centre/Centennial Planetarium; the Fort Calgary interpretive center, which provides information on the city’s origins; and Stampede Park, where Calgary’s world-famous livestock exhibition and rodeo, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede (commonly called the Calgary Stampede), is held every July. Stampede Park also has one of the city’s most remarkable structures, the saddle-shaped Saddledome, which was used as an Olympic stadium and is now the home of the Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League.
Other Calgary landmarks are the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, where the Calgary Opera and Alberta Ballet perform; McMahon Stadium, home to the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League; and Spruce Meadows, a world-class equestrian center. The University of Calgary (1966), Mount Royal College (1910), the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (1916), and Alberta College of Art (1983) are the principal educational institutions. There are large natural parks at Fish Creek, Glenmore, and Nose Hill.
The city proper covers a land area of 717 sq km (277 sq mi), and its census metropolitan area (CMA) covers a land area of 5,083 sq km (1,963 sq mi). A CMA is a geographic area that contains the main labor market of an urban zone—that is, the area from which people commute to work in the core built-up area.
Since the 1940s Calgary has been one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. The total population of its CMA grew from 93,000 in 1941 to 625,966 in 1981, 754,033 in 1991, and 976,800 in 2001. Calgary’s CMA is the sixth largest in Canada and the second largest in Alberta. The population of the city proper (the area within the city limits) rose from 710,795 in 1991 to 878,866 in 2001.
Throughout its history, Calgary has attracted immigrants from Europe (especially Germany), Southeast Asia, the United States, and, above all, the United Kingdom. Twenty-two percent of Calgary’s population is of purely British descent, while another 35 percent has some British ancestry. The next largest groups are Germans and other western Europeans (8 percent), eastern Europeans (5 percent), and Chinese (4 percent).
In recent years Calgary has developed into an important business center, and more than 50 of Canada’s top 500 companies now have their head offices there. Most are engaged in transportation or in energy production. The oil and gas industry alone employs about 75,000 people in more than 400 companies. Calgary also has a large concentration of research facilities and advanced technology companies working in such fields as computer software and seismic data processing. In a related development, telecommunications equipment has become the single largest manufacturing industry, although more traditional industries, like food processing, continue to be important.
As a transportation center, Calgary holds a commanding position in the rail, road, and air networks of western Canada. It has long been the main western base of the Canadian Pacific Railway; for many years, the railway repair shops were the city’s largest industry. In 1995 the company moved its head office to Calgary from Montréal. In addition, Calgary is located on the Trans-Canada Highway, at its junction with Alberta’s main north-south highway, and is a regional airline hub with regular flights to cities in the United States and Europe. A light rail transit (LRT) system called the C-Train connects downtown Calgary with the southern, northwestern, and northeastern suburbs.
From the time Calgary became a city in 1894, it has operated under the council-commission system of municipal government. The council consists of a mayor and 14 councillors who each represent a single ward, or area of the city. Elections are held every three years. The commission is the executive arm of Calgary’s government. It includes the mayor and four senior officials, known as commissioners, whose appointments are approved by the council. School boards are the only other elected bodies, although many public services are in the hands of special authorities appointed by the city council.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Calgary suffered from both corporate downsizing and government cutbacks. Energy companies laid off many employees, and unemployment has remained high despite Calgary’s general prosperity. Social problems arising from poverty and homelessness have worsened as well, and hospitals have reduced their services. Some have even closed. Calgary is one of the few cities in Canada where rapid growth is still creating problems. Extending transportation and other services to new suburbs is the greatest difficulty.
When European explorers first entered southern Alberta in the 1700s, it was chiefly the domain of the indigenous Blackfoot confederacy. The Blackfoot lived by hunting bison (often called buffalo) and other large animals, as their ancestors had done for perhaps 10,000 years. The evidence of this plains region way of life survives at numerous archaeological sites, such as the nearby Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, now a World Heritage Site.
In 1873, alarmed by the activities of a few Americans who were trading whiskey and guns to the Blackfoot in exchange for bison robes, the Canadian government created the North-West Mounted Police—now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—to bring law and order to the plains. One of the police forts, built at the mouth of the Elbow River in 1875, was Fort Calgary. The fort’s commander, Colonel James F. Macleod, named the fort after a place in Scotland.
A community soon grew up around it. Then, in 1883, the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived, opening southern Alberta to white settlement. The first big industry was cattle ranching on the open range. After 1900, when the main wave of European immigrants arrived, grain farming became more important. A vast area was irrigated with water from the Bow River. By the time the first Calgary Stampede was held in 1912, the heyday of the cowboy was over.
Calgary grew rapidly until 1914, but the next 30 years brought war, depression, and generally little change. The most significant event, although it did not have much impact at the time, was the 1914 discovery of oil just south of the city. The field was quite small, but it led oil companies to establish offices in Calgary.
The Great Depression—the economic hard times of the 1930s—brought great hardship to Alberta and generated interest in new political ideas, such as redistribution of income. Calgary was the birthplace of the Social Credit Party, founded by school principal and lay preacher William Aberhart. The party favored the radical economic doctrines of British monetary reformer Clifford H. Douglas, who proposed to pay everyone a “national dividend” (to be issued in the form of “social credit” certificates) to increase the spending power of consumers. In 1935 the party was swept into office, and Aberhart became premier. Although the federal courts prevented the party from testing its monetary ideas, such as a plan to pay a $25 yearly dividend to everyone in the province, it governed the province until 1971.
In the late 1940s, large oil fields were discovered around Edmonton, starting with Leduc in 1947. Calgary companies developed these wells. After the Leduc oil field was opened, thousands of new residents poured into Calgary, many of them from Oklahoma, Texas, and other oil-producing areas of the United States. Oil money helped finance a renewal of the city, and billions of dollars’ worth of construction went up in the downtown during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1988 Calgary became the first Canadian city to host the Olympic Winter Games.