In 2001, while staying in Edmonton for the World Championships in Athletics, a Daily Telegraph correspondent summarised his impressions of the Canadian city by dubbing it ‘Deadmonton‘.
Edmonton is the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, known for its vast oil reserves and political conservatism. It sits on the northwestern edge of central Canada’s prairie landscape and is North America’s most northerly city with a metropolitan population of over one million.
Following the Telegraph dis, local journalist David Staples came to the city’s defence. Why should Edmonton be compared with the terms set by a pretentious big city hack? Edmonton has its own charms: ‘Its identity comes from the cold, the vast sky, the empty spaces, the river; the same elements that define Canada’. Edmonton is, Staples continued, ‘Canada’s most Canadian city.’
It’s a popular sentiment. ‘It is what it is,’ the idiom goes. And Edmontonians are proud of that.
Recently I was doing a bit of architectural research on the city (which is my home town). I was looking for information on the province’s political seat, the Legislative Building, an impressive beaux-arts building and arguably Edmonton’s most historically significant. But I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
An elementary school student might have pointed me in the right direction. The issue was my spelling. Alberta has a Legislat-ure Building, and not a Legislative Building, which is what I had been entering into the search field at the archive.
But as it turns out this is an anomaly. Canada has 10 provinces, each with a grand provincial HQ. Many were completed around the same time during the early 20th Century, illustrating similar architectural styles. But Alberta is the only province that opted for the -ure suffix in its name.
The suffix -ive, according to the OED, denotes the sense of ‘having a tendency to, having the nature, character, or quality of, given to (some action)’, as in active, talkative, corrosive. It connotes a likeness, a reference back to its a priori sign (its word stem). It makes words like legislate an adjective.
By contrast, the suffix -ure, denotes an ‘action or process’ or the ‘the result or product of this,’ as in enclosure, figure, picture, scripture; and also, judicature … legislature.
So while the Legislative Building, is a building that mirrors the action of legislating, the Legislature Building is the object of this task. While -ive implies a representative association, replete with the sort of semantic deficit inherent to description, -ure is more assured. As a noun-making suffix, it offers a snugger seat in relation to its sign.
Does Alberta have a general propensity to the ‘ure’, to the idea that it simply is the product of itself?
Such a notion, that Alberta is a land of the -ure suffix – not simply in relation to the Legislature Building, but more broadly in the ways in which it imagines and justifies itself – is a whimsical, if not a pedantic one.
But this little anomaly, literally etched into the province’s capital building, might in a little tiny way, reveal something of Alberta’s sense of itself, its keenness to belie the process by which its nationalist meaning is produced. It is perhaps a token of the representational model that, for example, allows a pristine natural landscape to stand as one of the province’s most significant symbols, while at the same time administrating an industry that is the largest contributor to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.
For Alberta, the province’s symbols are construed as readymade objects. This is the symbolic provenance that styles Edmonton as Canada’s most Canadian city, the place most like itself – without ever really having a conversation about what that is.