An Edmonton Expat Becomes an Edmonton Evangelist | By Mary Rolf

Last September I moved to Toronto to work at an e-commerce start-up in the cosmetics industry. This was a weird decision. I wasn’t finished my English degree at the U of A, I don’t come from a business background, I had a job offer that paid better in Edmonton, and I didn’t know anyone in Toronto. But I wanted an adventure, so I did it anyway. I arranged to complete my last French course by correspondence through Athabasca and booked a plane ticket.

I like Toronto. It’s an interesting city with a lot to see and do, and municipal politics that are stranger – and more entertaining – than fiction. I even managed to find an apartment in the Annex, which is a cool, tree-lined hub of arts and culture in its own right; I think of it as the Old Strathcona of the 416. There are used bookstores, independent shops, concerts in tiny venues, and it’s about 5 minutes from the Toronto Fringe. Plus, every time I go to the grocery store there’s the possibility of running into my fellow Annex-dweller, Margaret Atwood, picking up tomatoes or whatever it is that fuels her literary superpower. It hasn’t happened so far, but that’s probably because I haven’t purchased enough tomatoes.

Living here is great, but leaving Edmonton has given me a crystal clear (okay, it’s a little rose-tinted) lens through which to view the fine city I still call home. Somewhere along the way I became an Edmonton Evangelist. Only instead of thumping a Bible I thump the Edmonton Journal. Here’s some of what I tell people when they quiz me on where I’m from. You might already know this stuff, but take a second to really appreciate it. It’s special, and it makes Edmonton special.

The greenspace is out of this world

I trot this one out a lot at parties (don’t I sound like fun?) and people are always surprised to hear that Edmonton has the most urban parkland in North America. We can thank the Hudson Bay Company for our stellar river valley: it was their land until 1912. Something to think about the next time you swipe your HBC Rewards card during Bay Days.

The cultural diversity

This is probably the thing people are most surprised to hear. They’re blown away when I rattle off all the amazing cuisines you can find in Edmonton, and not just at Heritage Days but all year round. “Really? You’ve had Ethiopian food? Aren’t you from Edmonton?” I once told someone that I’d gone to school with kids from loads of different backgrounds because they told me they thought Edmonton was really white and were surprised I had been to a Chinese New Year celebration. Put it down to a potent combo of industry hub and university town: people come to Edmonton and they bring their amazing traditions with them. You want Anglo Saxon charm, go to Halifax (really, do, it’s nice there, too). Edmonton is multicultural and incredibly rich because of it.

The community

I don’t just mean this in an abstract “sense of community” way. Edmonton has a long history of community leagues, stretching back to 1917 when Crestwood formed the first in the city – and by some accounts the first in Canada, too. Today the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues comprises 156 leagues. My parents went to community league meetings on the regular. The league organized my soccer teams. It’s where the neighbourhood met up for winter hay rides and stopped in to warm up at Hallowe’en. I’ve eaten a lot of budget hot dogs at community league barbeques, and I’m grateful for it.

Mountains and moleholes

Calgary is certainly closer, but Edmonton’s mountain proximity is still pretty good. It’s easy to get away for a few days of skiing or hiking. People keep telling me I can ski in Ontario but I’m very skeptical. I may try it out at some point, but you really can’t beat the Rockies, can you? This is one of the few points people just can’t argue with me on. I use it as a closer and to add some general Alberta love to the conversation.

The people

I’m not trying to scoop anyone here, as there are many friendly places, but Edmonton is right up there with the best of them. It’s more than just friendliness, though. People are civic minded and they care about their causes. Just think about how different Edmonton summers would be without the thousands of summer festival volunteers. And the communities I mentioned earlier – people are the backbone of every single one.

Prairie love

There’s nothing like flying into Edmonton. No matter where I’m coming from or how long I’ve been away, I’m always relieved to see the familiar flatness. It’s a release of tension I don’t usually realize I’ve been carrying. I think the moment it hit me that I’d become an Edmonton Evangelist was as I tried to explain just how beautiful prairie grass is as it blows in the wind. My victims so far are mainly ocean-loving folk who can’t understand my landlocked love. Apparently vast expanses of sameness bore them. To which I say, have you see the ocean lately?

So the next time you meet someone who has a less-than-flattering nickname for this city, join me in my Edmonton Evangelism. In the meantime soak up the place. Go for a walk in the river valley. Volunteer in your community. Eat something good. See a band play. Watch some grass. (Oh, just me on that one? Okay.) Get excited about Edmonton, and make it worth getting excited about. Then tell people.

CC photograph courtesy of FeatheredTar on Flickr.


  1. WOAH thank the HBC for the river valley! you’re kidding right? Also the ocean is never sameness. I like Edmonton a lot as an out-of-towner, and I agree with many of your points. I, too, think prairie grass is beautiful and its vast flatness is comforting and the sky is big and bursting, but I WILL get my back up if you say the ocean is boring or thank the HBC instead of like erosion or the Athabasca glacier or Cree people for the river valley

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment! That’s a really good point about the river valley, I realize it wasn’t HBC land first or traditionally or even rightly at all (if that makes sense). I only mentioned it because I thought it was a cool fact that many people I’d met didn’t know and the goal of the piece was to get people to appreciate Edmonton in a new way. And you’re right, I was actually kidding, this whole piece was intended to be lighthearted, but I really appreciate your insight. You highlighted a trap that many of us fall into: short term historical memory loss.

      I also love the ocean, and don’t think it’s a vast expanse of sameness at all. That part was supposed to be ironic, because I don’t think the prairie is a vast expanse of sameness either. Many people have told me they find it “the same” and “boring”, though, why is why I made the joke.

      Great to hear from an out-of-towner!

  2. hi Mary! You’ve captured and conveyed with wit and wisdom a good bit of Edmonton essence. I’d hire you any day!

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