Andy Marshall’s study of James Rodney Winter Sykes, Mayor of Calgary from 1969 to 1977, has more perspective than most books about landmark political careers. As Marshall recounts, when Rod Sykes was Calgary’s chief magistrate and protagonist in chief, his public persona was controversial. Mayor Sykes came to power as the guy who would clean up city hall by ending backroom cronyism and personal enrichment, and his media presence was focused on the narrow ambit of his self-appointed role as town sheriff. This was a rich vein to mine for news reporters and opponents—Thin Power, the title of the book, comes from a ubiquitous lapel pin showing a caricature of the mayor drawn by an editorial cartoonist. But they seldom bothered to go deeper.
In Thin Power Marshall writes about Sykes’s unconventional upbringing on Vancouver Island, his Montreal education and career as a chartered accountant and CPR executive, his unconventional marriage to a seventh-generation pure laine Québécoise, and the values and vision he brought to politics.
When Sykes came into office, Calgary had reached a tipping point in the transition from a small prairie city to a rapidly growing urbane enclave for well-off, well-educated professionals and their mostly contented service providers. Sykes was mayor during the years when the rules were set for how the city would sprawl out and up, its density in the core, the transportation system it would develop, and the industrialization to support its head office decision-making role in the oil and gas sector. Sykes had more than his mayoral share of influence over the way Calgary has grown for the past 40 years. He reshaped governance within city hall and shook up the comfortable establishment outside. In particular, Sykes’s influence on urban planning, transportation, the calibre of public service, and development in the inner city, as recounted in this book, illuminates Calgary as the city that Rod Sykes should get much credit for making.
Author Marshall is a retired Calgary weekly newspaper man and was an aide in the mayor’s office when Sykes led a misbegotten attempt to salvage the provincial Social Credit party. It is an accomplishment of authorship that Marshall set aside his affection for Sykes to render this literary portrait with detachment and judgment. Thin Power recaptures a critical time at the beginning of Calgary’s remarkable growth, and is a credible recounting of events in Calgary and Alberta during a time that is imprinted indelibly on the 21st century.
—Frank Dabbs is a journalist and author.