Heritage Day was never more suitably named than at Fort Calgary's recent celebration, when Calgarians with roots in far-flung corners of the globe celebrated a quintessentially Canadian landmark.
German, Spanish, French, Cantonese and English all resonated throughout the old North West Mounted Police barracks as families locked each other in jail cells and took turns trying on Red Serge uniforms. The steady stream of strollers through the log gates of Calgary’s birthplace and the rows of tour buses lining the parking lot proved that exploring the past never gets old. At the corner of 6th St. and 9th Ave. SE in East Village, the newly installed scarlet-red Sentinels landmark was a fitting portal to the past.
“We’ve had quite a few people come through already, and it’s not even noon,” reported the friendly greeter in his Mountie red uniform. “Lots of people are bringing the kiddies, because we have some great activities for the kids today.” A picture-perfect end to an August long weekend, plus free admission all day at Fort Calgary, meant that many families took advantage of the welcoming atmosphere and the accessible location to spend the day steeped in history inside the barracks and soaking up some sun in the community garden and throughout the sprawling grounds.
“How does this work?” one youngster wondered as she tried out the wooden turn-of-the-century toys on display in the hands-on museum. “Mom, did you used to have one of these when you were little?”
The rough jail cells with their chinked log walls and coarse blankets were especially tempting to little criminals of all ages. “I want to go to jail,” insisted one n’er-do-well, luring the rest of his family away from the big black steam locomotive where they had paused for family photos. Happy to oblige, his father promptly fitted him with the smaller set of shackles that were hanging outside the jailhouse doors. “Handcuffs for little thieves! Perfect!” Dad declared before locking his delighted offspring in the cell.
Amateur historians squeezed into the interpretive centre’s theatre to hear Fort Calgary CEO and President Sara-Jane Gruetzner talk about Chief Crowfoot, Colonel MacLeod, Captain Deane and Alderman John Ayer. These key figures from Fort Calgary’s colourful history are all commemorated by the scarlet Sentinels standing guard at the gateway to Fort Calgary and East Village. Elsewhere in the fort, crafty youngsters crowded around a long activity table to create their own Sentinels from red beverage cups and paper cutouts. Across the room, parents gathered around the barrack’s pool table to instruct the next generation on the finer points of snooker.
Along the meandering pathways that criss-cross Fort Calgary’s 40-acre parklands, Calgarians wandered in peaceful contemplation. As they paused to marvel at the heirloom plants in the community garden or reflect upon the abandoned railway line that turned the traditional Siksika land into a settlement, urban explorers could not help but be fascinated by the richness of the bygone days beneath their feet. It was indeed a day for the history books.