Canadians laughed at me when I said I would be in Edmonton at the end of October. The cold, you see. But I mostly got away with it – up to 8 degrees in the day, which isn’t too bad. It went all the way down to a chilly 2 today, mind, with snow forecast and -9 predicted for the weekend. I’ll be in Calgary by then, which is expected to be a bit warmer.
The city itself seemed concrete and muted, to my eyes. Much of the infrastructure dates from concrete times – 70s? – with bridges and buildings in the centre that appear initially unlovely. But it grew on me. The city centre is all under one roof – it sprawls, but has been connected, so that those cold temperatures can be avoided for a while. If you don’t know it exists, mind you, it can make the main downtown area seem like the most unlovely service centre of the North American kind – come in, park here, eat here, now push off, there is nothing else for you here. That feeling is not helped by construction that has blocked some sidewalks, making walking the streets a bit challenging – that will improve with time. Once you find a door to the centre, though, you are in to a more pedestrian-friendly area.
I am staying in Strathcona, which itself appeared the middle of suburbia when I got there on the bus. Just a street away from the HI (Hostelling International) place, though, is a busy high street, and there are shops and bars a-plenty. I can see why the hostel is better here than downtown – the latter is starker and more spread out, while Strathcona lets you explore, and the streets are more easily navigated.
Downtown is walkable, if a couple of kms away. More or less the first thing you come to of any consequence is the Legislative Building for the province. It’s grand, and has free tours through the day, on the hour. The sign currently says “free tours in Winter”, but that may be because the timing is different, rather than meaning they aren’t available at other times of the year.
The staff are well trained to treat all visitors well. Our guide was very welcoming and extremely enthusiastic – not for her the cynicism of the realities of politics, and she took great delight in pointing out the symbolism that points to the British political system – various crowns, crosses of St George, picture of the Queen, Black Rod and so on.
This statue marks the First Nation leader who first signed treaty 7 (?), allowing the Europeans access to the land, in return for essential help for his people, who were suffering as the bison died out, killed off by people encroaching onto their lands. It shows how leaders lead and may be honoured for such, even if they were not entirely loved for it.
You might just be able to see, at the top in the picture above, palm trees. They have been growing there since 1932. No one knows why they were given; they are native to Australia. But they are faithfully watered, and thriving.
There is a lovely sound effect from the 4th floor. Switch the fountain on (and they have put a switch up there for just that purpose) and stand underneath a particular light, and it sounds as though water is rushing all around you. Step away, and the sound disappears. It freaked out a workman, changing a lightbulb one day in 1959. When they investigated, they found there was no water near the electricity, just a sound quirk, as it rushes round and round the building, up the stairs to the main chamber, then bounces at 90 degrees to that floor. Turn the fountain off and because the sound travels so far round and round (over 2 miles), it is a good couple of seconds before the sound ceases.
The Lieutenant Governor is the Queen’s representative, with some symbolic power – they sign bills into law. Though the signature is all they do in that process. They are admitted to the chamber to sign, then ushered out again, so as not to interfere or cause any difference in behaviour. Up until the 1970s, they were in the ceremonial uniform as above.
In the 1970s, though, came a maverick. A Cree native, although the position is officially neutral, he tended to give a distinctly First Nation perspective. And his official photograph has him in the outfit shown above – a welcome change.
The tour takes 40-45 minutes, though with only 4 of us on the 3pm one, and all of us able to scoot upstairs quickly, our guide got talkative and kept going till after the next hour.
Her favourite story, despite her having met Kings and Queens and the like, was of discovering she had a member of the British Royal Family on a tour when said member paused outside the main chamber, and insisted she had to be invited in. “Course you can come in!” said the guide. “No, but I must be invited,” she said, to make it clear. “She knew, you see,” said the guide, explaining how Charles I’s failed attempt to arrest 5 parliamentarians with whom he did not agree had led to the fall of the monarchy, Cromwell, and so on, and the fact that, subsequently, the Royal Family must be invited in. Indeed, when they are invited to the main hall, the mace is banged against the door three times, the door is opened, then shut in their faces, to show they are there by invitation.
I can’t help but think that that minor member of the Royal Family was a little too keen to show that “she knew”. I suppose, once you know the protocol, you are damned if you do (obey it) and damned if you don’t. But still, I am not convinced she was showing “she knew” so much as wanting it to be known that she knew.
I have really enjoyed spending a few days in Edmonton. I’d like to see it in summer, to see if the colours are more vivid with more plant life, but the riverside trails are great for exploring, the city is pretty compact and Strathcona offers plenty of places to eat, drink and generally be happy.