What I Love About Cochrane

by Bill Belsey
How do I love thee, Cochrane? Let me count the ways. With apologies to The Bard, I will try.

At a time when the world seems increasingly polarized and divided, having a sense of community, a feeling of belonging and a shared feeling of place and common purpose may be more important now, than ever. For me, Cochrane gives me all of that, and more.

Cochrane is one of Canada’s fastest-growing communities; we now number approximately 30,000. Upon reflection, it’s easy to see why. Why? What is it about this community that has endeared itself to me and so many others? The answers are both simple and complex.

Location! Location! Location!
Some of the reasons I appreciate Cochrane are elemental; having to do with our geography. We can be considered rural, yet we are close enough to Calgary to be minutes away from the City of Calgary. We have a “Small Town Vibe” featuring a Western-themed downtown. We can be on a mountain in the Rockies, the Badlands or prairies within minutes in any direction.

Cochrane is nestled at the base of Big Hill in the Bow River Valley, some 1,000 meters above sea level. This elevation and winds blowing down from the snow-capped Rocky Mountains mean that while of parts of the world may be sweltering with heat and oppressive humidity, we do not need air conditioning as the summer nights are refreshing and cool.

We have clean air and water. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, millions around the world have to wear masks to protect against air pollution and are forced to drink bottled water, not us, not here. I can’t imagine how many around the world would love to be able to turn on their taps and drink water that originated in the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains.

The regular chinook warming winds truly earn their meaning, “Snow-eater” from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox. The chinooks help to moderate our version of a Canadian winter. Many days in winter you don’t have to shovel your driveway thank to the chinooks.

If you love weather, then Cochrane is the place for you. Alberta is called “Big Sky Country,” and for a good reason, the sky often looks large and dramatic. Sunrise and sunsets here can be breathtaking. When I first moved to Cochrane, I was having lunch at a now-defunct restaurant called, “The Doughnut Ranch”. A rancher sitting next to me asked me how I liked the weather, then he said, “Well, if you don’t wait a few minutes”. This oft-heard expression was indeed prophetic. Within the next hour of my departure from the cafe, the weather changed from hot and sunny, to pouring rain, to hail to blue skies with a gorgeous rainbow. The rancher was right. 

Having the Bow River winding through our town is both a blessing and a challenge. “The Bow” offers world-class fishing opportunities. We can walk on the pathways by its banks, but it can also challenge our community resolve like it did in 2013. The “Flood of the Century” brought out the best in our community as people pulled together to help one another during a tough and scary time.

Cochrane has something for just about everyone’s lifestyle; walking, jogging, hiking, golfing, mountain climbing, rafting, cycling, snowboarding, downhill and cross country skiing are just minutes away. Residents can swim, curl, play hockey, ringette, figure skate, do gymnastics and work-out in our world-class recreation centre. Skateboarders in Cochrane have one of the best skateboard parks anywhere; in fact, many people come from far and wide to challenge themselves at this well-designed park. Cochrane was a centre for paragliding instruction, with the renowned Nick Mueller family who operated a school at the top of the Big Hill. The Big Hill is a popular training ground for cyclists from the area, who take advantage of its 7% grade and 3.5 km distance uphill. One of Cochrane’s very best attributes and perhaps Cochrane’s best-kept secret is our extensive pathways system that now winds its way throughout town for over 60 kilometres!
We can easily access many parks; Glenbow Ranch, Big Hill Springs, Cochrane Ranche Park, Ghost Reservoir Provincial Recreation Area for boating, and Riverfront Park for a walk by the river or a game of Frisbee golf. The amazing Kananaskis Provincial park, as well as the famous National Banff and Jasper Parks, are just a drive away. Cochranites, like most Canadians, love our parks!

If you are an animal-lover, Cochrane has off-leash dog parks that are often packed with dog-lovers patrolling pampered pooches. Cochrane has at least half a dozen pet stores, animal clinics and the incredible Cochrane Humane Society, where you can get an animal needing a loving home, or volunteer as a dog walker.

For those who love to camp in an RV, or pull a “Fifth wheel’, the Bow River’s Edge Park is a gem.

Cochrane offers families excellent local schools. An article from the BBC called Canada an “Education Super-Power” and Alberta’s Public School system is much-admired well beyond our borders.

Cochrane’s Public Library, also known as the Nan Boothby Library, or “The Nan” to many locals is an incredible community resource!

The Cochrane Movie House presents a variety of films for all ages and tastes. If you want to see a first-run, just-out movie in Calgary, but can’t because tickets are hard to get, or the line-ups are too long, come to Cochrane, and you’ll often have no problem. The Cochrane Movie House has a “Small-town look” on the outside, but inside you’ll see movies with digital video, Dolby sound and comfy lounger-style seating. Movie watching doesn’t get much better.
Cochrane has a strong and growing artistic community. Art walks and celebrations of Art and our local artists happen regularly throughout the year, often organized by the Cochrane Art Club, or very active Cochrane Photography Club. The Chinook Film Group often hosts screenings of unique films at our excellent Cochrane Movie House. One world-class example is Don Begg, who is an international award-winning bronze sculptor. Don Begg and his wife Shirley Stephens-Begg own and operate the fine art foundry Studio West Ltd. Don is personally involved in each stage of casting and finishing his bronzes, specializing in monumental sculptures. Don has created more than 85 public monuments across North America. Don’s limited edition bronze sculptures appear internationally, in private, corporate, and museum art collections on five continents, including the collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Cochrane now boasts epicurean offerings from around the world. Casual diners and Foodies alike can sample delicacies from Thailand, Greece, Italy, India, Vietnam and more. And, of course, there is MacKay’s Ice Cream! Since 1948, MacKay’s Ice Cream has proudly served its locally made, premium ice cream to customers from around the world. You have to look at the many pins affixed to their world map inside the store, and you’ll see this with your own eyes.

Cochrane has no business tax, this, along with our healthy lifestyles options, encourages new businesses to grow here. Cochrane has a burgeoning technology sector, which is lead by the likes of Garmin Technologies.

Cochrane’s excellent amenities aside, what is the beating heart of any community is its people, and our community has a mosaic of compassionate, caring Cochranites.

Coming down the Big Hill into Cochrane, you can view the community from a distance, and you might develop general impressions. Moving closer, we can begin to appreciate better those who make up the mosaic that is Cochrane, Alberta.
Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that the first person to use the term “mosaic” to describe the national character of Canada was, in fact, an American. In 1922, Victoria Hayward referred to our country this way in the published work, Romantic Canada, a piece of travel writing detailing her journey across our fair land.

Visitors to Cochrane might find themselves at our “City Hall”. At first glance, the intriguing artwork in the foyer of the Cochrane Ranchehouse entitled “Trust”, looks like a horse, lovingly embraced. Upon closer inspection, you can see this marvellous mosaic consists of up of 216 individual paintings that were created by a team of local artists, coordinated by artist Lewis Lavoie of St. Albert, Alberta, it was unveiled on Canada Day, 2007. I like to this of this Art as a mirror that tries to reflect Cochrane’s increasingly diverse mosaic.

Cochrane’s community mosaic reflects that of Canada. The Stoney Nakoda, or “People of the mountains”, were first to have lived in this area for many years. In time, they were joined by others who would farm and ranch in the area. Cochrane was established in 1881 as the Cochrane Ranche, after Matthew Henry Cochrane, a local rancher. It became a village in 1903, and it had a newspaper and volunteer fire department by 1909. Cochrane incorporated as a town in 1971.

Today, Cochrane’s increasingly diverse population enriches our community in countless ways with their Art, music, food, dance, stories and traditions. It used to be that you would hear languages from around the world in the line-ups for Mackay’s Ice Cream downtown on a hot summer day, today, this could happen anywhere, anytime in our community.

If someone were to draw up plans or create a recipe for the kind of community they would most like to live in, I have a feeling that Cochrane, Alberta would fill that bill and more.

Cochrane, how do I love thee? Well, I’ve tried to make a dent with some of my reasons, but the good news is, we’re just getting started!

Mr. B’s “Tour de Cochrane”

Dear parents and students of “Canada’s Coolest Class!“,

I have a fun idea for Friday, May 1st to help us safely connect and put a smile on one another’s faces during these “isolating” times. 🙂

After our regular Friday morning class meeting online, I am going to hop on my bike and begin the first-ever, “Tour de Cochrane“! 🚴‍♂️🚵‍♂️

I am going to ride my bike, “Black Beauty“, around the communities of Sunset,  Heartland and Heritage Hills, unless the weather is terrible, then I’ll try again another day. You can follow my ride online in real-time, using this link between 10:30-1:30pm-ish, https://glympse.com/!MrBTourDeCochrane

I hope to try and visit everyone’s place between 10:30 am and 12:30 noon-ish. I have made a Google Map to help me find your place. I will stay on the road in front of your place and maybe we could take a quick “Safe-Distancing Selfie” 😉

At approximately 10:30 AM, I will send everyone an email with a “Glympse” link.  You will be able to follow my ride online in real-time, using this link, https://glympse.com/!MrBTourDeCochrane

Here’s how “Glympse” works,

I hope so see everyone on Friday morning (weather permitting)!

Take care,

Mr. B


Mosaic Stories: Tony Elain

Mosaic Stories: Tony Elain by Bill Belsey

Perceptions change with perspective.

At first glance, the intriguing artwork in the foyer of the Cochrane Ranchehouse entitled “Trust”, looks like a horse, lovingly embraced. Upon closer inspection, you can see this marvellous mosaic is actually made up of 216 individual paintings that were created by a team of local artists, coordinated by artist Lewis Lavoie of St. Albert, Alberta, it was unveiled on Canada Day, 2007.

Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that the first person to use the term “mosaic” to describe the national character of Canada was, in fact, an American. In 1922, Victoria Hayward referred to our country this way in the published work, Romantic Canada, a piece of travel writing detailing her journey across our fair land.

A community is also a mosaic. Viewed from a distance we develop general impressions. Moving closer we can begin to better appreciate those who make up the mosaic that is Cochrane, Alberta. My new column, “Mosaic” strives to do just that; help us know our community better by digging a little deeper. In this digital age of Social Media where we might not truly know those we are interacting with, we might be tempted to communicate things online that we might never say or do in person. In an increasingly technological time, we need to actively re-connect in more humane ways. I hope that my Mosaic column might help us to move beyond the big picture and look more closely so that we might better understand the individuals who are part of Cochrane’s community canvas.

Damascus, Syria is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and it was in this culturally rich and historic community that Tony Elain was born on April 3, 1943. Tony was a middle child, with four brothers and one sister.

In a telling anecdote from his childhood, Tony recalls that every Sunday he and his friends would ride their old bikes for four or five hours so that they could travel to the mountains where they would find trees, ripe with dates and other fresh fruit. They would pick and devour these organic treasures, savouring the succulent juices on sizzling Syrian summer days. Tony fondly remembers having picnics in the mountains, drinking fresh water directly from the mountain springs. “Most people couldn’t afford a car, so we used bikes to get around,” he reflected. For Tony, the sheer freedom and independence of these cycling sojourns were just as important as the delicious reward at the end of their tour. 

After saving some money, Tony’s dad eventually bought an old 1936 car made by the British Standard Car Company. Tony recalled, “In those days it was very hard to get a new vehicle.” He remembered driving this old car into the mountains without a driver’s license but feared for his life when the brakes failed as he was driving back down on their return home. His mother was constantly hitting her head on the roof of the car that had little, or no suspension, as they drove on those bumpy, mountainous roads. 

Tony joined his father and apprenticed in the family shoe repair business from the age of ten to fifteen years. His father was a well-respected master of his trade. In a bold move that would display his drive and foreshadow his rapidly-developing business acumen, Tony left his father’s business and opened his own shop just two blocks from his dad’s. Tony charged less money than his dad and his business flourished, which made Tony’s mother proud of her son’s work ethic and success, but his father was unhappy about the unwelcome competition and eventually, he convinced Tony to reunite with him as one family-run business. 

When young men in Syria turn eighteen, they are required to serve in the military. Tony did his duty for two years. Upon completing his service, his family moved to Lebanon, where they lived in Beirut for five years. “Lebanon was a nice country where there was more freedom,” recalls Tony. He stayed with his family in Lebanon for five years. Tragically, during this time, Tony’s mother became ill and died. At that time, Tony’s sister had emigrated to Canada with her husband, and they settled in Calgary. Tony told his father that he also wanted to go to Canada because he felt that he would have a better future there. With Tony’s sister as his sponsor, he came to Canada in 1971.  The emigration process had taken him two years. 

His father and brother encouraged him to try it and if it didn’t work out, he could come back to Lebanon. Tony was having none of that, he was determined to succeed in Canada. The thought that going back would have meant admitting defeat, he wasn’t about to let that happen. 

He arrived in Calgary, via Montreal in March of ‘71. Only a day before he had been swimming in the sea basking in the warmth of Lebanon, now he was then confronted by a frigid Canadian winter. Although he had seen snow before in the Mountains of Syria, he couldn’t believe seeing snowbanks as high as his plane seat when he landed in Montreal! 

When Tony’s brother-in-law picked him up at the Calgary airport, Tony watched in horror as the car slid wildly back-and-forth on the slick roads. “I don’t think that I’ll be able to drive here,” Tony thought at the time.

After moving in with his sister in Canada, Tony took whatever jobs he could find. He worked at a roofing job in the middle of winter for just 90 cents an hour. “I had never been so cold in my life, there were times that I was so cold that I cried. I didn’t have proper winter clothes, no winter jacket or warm footwear. I would slide on my feet just trying to walk down the street,” he recalled with a shiver.  “There were times when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? But I stuck it out’”. Tony would not admit defeat. 

After a while, Tony got a better-paying job, working for $3.00 an hour at a cabinet-making company. With his hard-earned savings, Tony opened “Tony’s Shoe Repair” shop in Market Mall. He regularly worked fourteen-hour days. During this time, he was able to save enough for a down payment on a small home in the Ogden neighbourhood of Calgary that cost just over $18,000. After three years in Calgary, Tony’s father came for a visit. Tony was proud to show his father the new life he was crafting in Canada.

In 1974, Tony returned to Lebanon to marry Ousyma, a girl he had known from his days growing up in Damascus. It was an arranged marriage between her parents and his father. On August 18th, 2019, Tony and Ousyma celebrated forty-five years of marriage.

When asked about some of the differences between Canada and Syria beyond the obvious contrasts in climate, Tony mentioned being paid. “When you do work for people in Syria, customers often won’t pay you until well after your work is done for them. Some don’t ever pay you. It can be hard because you don’t want to argue with your neighbours, friends and even family. Here, in Canada, people pay you right away. Sometimes, people appreciate my work so much, they give me a tip”, he said with pride.   

Tony also marvels at the food selection in Canada. “Here in Canada, we have so much choice, it’s great! Sometimes when we are in Penticton, we pick up lots of fresh fruit.”

“Housing is also different here. In Canada, houses are so nice. We have so much space in Canada. In Syria, many people live in apartments, most cannot afford to have a house. When Syrians come to Canada, they think that we live so well.” 

“Canada has excellent education and health care. We have a healthy democracy. We have many rights and freedoms. Canadians should NEVER take these things for granted. Canadians understand that if we all pay a little more in taxes, then more people are helped. More people have a chance to succeed. In some other countries, everyone is out for themselves first. Of course, we should all work hard. I have worked very hard in my life for my family, but I was raised to also help others. Canada is a country where we try to help one another, this is why I love Canada, it’s not just about me, it’s also about us.”

When asked what values he has tried to instil in his children, Tony responded, “Work hard. Don’t give up easily when you have a challenge in business, or in life. Do quality, honest work. Don’t cut corners. Give people the best you can, even if you have to lose money sometimes. You are your reputation.”

After many years of extremely hard work and shrewd investing, Tony now owns the buildings on Cochrane’s main street that includes “Tony’s Shoe Repair”, “Donair on the Run”, “Incredible Florist”, “Tony’s Western Wear” and “Cochrane Floors and More.” Tony’s son, Camille runs “Donair on the Run” that often receives rave reviews from customers who come from far and wide to enjoy the delicious donair, shawarma, falafels, baklava and more. Tony’s son Mike manages “Tony’s Western Wear”, whose selection of boots and clothing is impressive and their customer service is legendary. Clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Elain family when it comes to running successful businesses. Just like Tony learned from his father, Tony’s sons are learning from him.

In addition to raising his own family. Tony Elain has sponsored 120 others from now war-torn Syria, who have made Canada their new home and, like Tony, they are working hard to make many valuable contributions to Canadian society.

Left to right: Mike, Tony and Camille Elain.

When asked what his proudest achievement is, Tony replied without hesitation, “My family!”

“I am VERY happy that I chose to live in Canada. Canada has been so good to my family and me. It is the greatest country in the world!”

The next time you’re walking downtown, drop in and say hi to Tony and his sons. Their family is a very special part of our Cochrane mosaic, something I’ve since learned after I took the time to get a little closer.

*If you know of others who have come to Cochrane from abroad and whose story should be celebrated in my “Mosaic” column, please get in touch, ourmosaicstories@gmail.com.