CALGARY — The Calgary Stampede is back and kicked off Friday morning with the usual array of floats, bands, horses and dignitaries.
But the first parade since the COVID-19 pandemic was missing one main ingredient from the past — spectators.
"I sat on the horse for about an hour before the parade started, and then the parade started and I said, 'Where are the people?"' said Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was riding in his 10th parade.
It was Nenshi's last ride. He has said he will not run again in this fall's municipal election.
The 40-minute, scaled-down version travelled through the Stampede grounds to mark the opening of the 10-day homage to cowboy culture, but was closed to the general public.
It was televised, but only Stampede staff and volunteers were allowed in.
Nenshi said it was a big deal considering what the world has gone through since the pandemic took hold last year.
"It is a way for us to honour what we've been through ..." he said. "The entire Stampede this year is really a salute to the front-line and essential workers that got us through this.
"We're the first major event in Canada and so everyone's watching to see how we do this responsibly."
The parade marshal was Katari Right Hand, a 17-year-old fancy dancer from the Siksika First Nation east of Calgary, also known as "Rainbow Girl."
She was featured on this year's Calgary Stampede poster, which shows her dancing with rainbow ribbons flowing from her costume with the Rocky Mountains and dark clouds in the background.
"I didn't know I was going to be parade marshal," she said. "I thought being the poster girl was going to be the biggest thing, but then they surprised me that they wanted me to be parade marshal. I said OK, but I didn't know what it was at the time."
The Stampede also included honorary parade marshals: front-line and essential workers instrumental in the battle against COVID-19, as well as Brazilian long rider Filipe Masetti Leite, who was the marshal for last year's cancelled event.
Masetti Leite completed a 3,400-kilometre journey on horseback from Alaska to Calgary last year, the same day the Stampede was supposed to begin.
"It was kind of eerie to ride into the infield and have it empty on what should have been the first day of the Calgary Stampede," he said.
"It hasn't been easy, but that's why it's so important to be here. That light that we're looking for at the end of the tunnel is here, and I think the Calgary Stampede is representing that so well."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2021.
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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press