By Vipasha Paul, August 15 2022—
Calgary’s most recent Stampede was one of the largest ever. The 10-day event hosted around 1.2 million people, putting it just behind 2019’s second-place position. CEO Joel Cowley says that surveys conducted show that 30 per cent of visitors were from outside of Alberta — similarly to 2019. These statistics boast the Calgarian tradition’s ability to unite all kinds of people, however, Texan rodeo contestant Rocker Steiner diminished this very ideal by wearing a white supremacist logo, known as The Punisher symbol, at this year’s show. This unacknowledged act of racism calls the Stampede’s accountability and inclusivity into question. If a symbol of oppression can so easily slip through the cracks, what else will?
The Stampede Rodeo is a large outdoor attraction at the Calgary Stampede, where cowboys showcase their skills in competitions like chuckwagon races, bull-riding, bronc riding and more. Texan bareback rider, Rocker Steiner, was seen flaunting The Punisher skull symbol on his attire at the most recent rodeo. The distinct long shape of the skull, in recent years, has been closely associated to far-right movements and white supremacy groups in North America — Canada in particular has put groups like the Three Percenters militia, who frequent the usage of the symbol, as a terrorist organization.
The Punisher symbol originated from a Marvel comic book character of the same name, who is depicted wearing it on his uniform. The seemingly harmless logo was appropriated by police, military and many right-wing protesters, with the skull graphic gaining attention during 2017 where it was seen on various police and right-wing paraphernalia, including uniforms, cars, phones and flags during many infamous events. The symbol was also present during the Charlottesville white nationalist rallies in 2017, the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, and plastered over many police cars with the phrase “Blue Lives Matter” along with it. More recently, enforcement officers were spotted with the symbol during the protests following George Floyd’s death and visible on an idle police officer’s phone from security footage taken from the Uvalde public school attack — a racially motivated shooting against the city’s Latino community. As a result of this, the symbol is associated with white supremacy, anti-Black Lives Matter and gun violence, especially against people of colour.
“The Punisher is representative of the failure of law and order to address the concerns of people who feel abandoned by the legal system […] It always struck me as stupid and ironic that members of the police are embracing what is fundamentally an outlaw symbol,” said Gerry Conway, creator of the Marvel character The Punisher, to Forbes magazine.
By allowing a rodeo competitor like Steiner to flaunt the symbol so blatantly on his attire — then by compensating him and praising his skills — the Calgary Stampede has displayed its lack of accountability, consideration and precaution in the face of racial hatred. The Stampede consists of such a diverse and large audience which is representative of Calgarians and Canada as a whole, therefore, an oppressive graphic like The Punisher symbol should never have made it into the spotlight in the first place. It degrades communities of people and those who have lost their lives to police brutality and gun violence.
“The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” has a long way to go before it truly earns the title. The Calgary Stampede should make an effort to regulate rodeo contestants’ and performers’ attire before they enter the pen or the stage because contestants are representative of what ideas the organization supports, and subsequently, Canada as a whole. If a symbol revolving around such hatred and violence can be treated so leniently, then there is no telling what else will be tolerated in upcoming years.
By doing something as simple as banning racist symbols and regulating other discriminatory behaviour and graphics, the Stampede can truly represent Calgary as a welcoming, fun and inclusive environment worthy of 1.2 million diverse guests from around the world.
This article is a part of our Voices section.