Down under in Whistler
Australians have had a big impact on Whistler, and vice versa
By Kara-Leah Grant
When Melinda Gram left Sydney at 21, her life was laid out.
She’d been seeing her high school sweetheart, Greg, for seven years. She had great friends, a loving family and a financially secure future. Greg had a good job and was building her the house of her dreams. She planned to go to Whistler with her girlfriend for a six-week ski instructor’s course, then head back to marriage and stability in Sydney.
Nearly nine years have passed, and Melinda is still in Whistler.
In 1967 Elvis Prestley was still skinny and Sue Adams had just left Australia for a round the world trip: first stop, Vancouver. Only stop, Vancouver.
Sue met a boy, that boy skied and the trips to Whistler began. Thirty-two years later, Sue owns The Grocery Store and has been living in Whistler for a decade.
Libby and Gordon McKeever met in Fiji in 1981, an Australian and a Canadian boy travelling the world. They planned to get married and live in Australia, but first they decided to do a winter in Whistler. Eighteen years and two children later, they still live in Whistler.
Australians grow up in a country where the land is hot, flat and dry. Over 85 per cent of the population inhabits the coast. Christmas is a season of barbecues and surfing, of beer warm five minutes out of the esky. Yet these same Australians are drawn to Whistler, a town where it snows for six months of the year, rains for three months and a long, hot summer is as rare as a sober Australian on Australia Day. They come for a season and stay a year, or two, or five.
"Why are there so many Australians here?" tourists ask. What makes an Australian fly half way around the world to come to a town where it’s notoriously difficult to find a place to live, where minimum wage is a paltry $7.15 an hour, and nobody has VB (Victoria Bitter) on tap? A town where the nearest surf is five or six hours away and too cold to contemplate.
Why? The snow, white fluffy stuff falling from the sky, lazily making its way towards the ground, looking like it might change its mind at any time and start swirling back into the sky. And the mountains, two of them that rise high into the sky and keep rising, reaching up until the lights of the snow groomers become confused with the stars hovering in the heavens. And of course, snowboarding — a sport so young its diapers still need changing, yet growing so fast it needs new boots every three months.
Jeanine Messeguer’s journey to Whistler is a strange tale. She decided to move here without ever setting foot in Canada, let alone Whistler.
"My husband had always skied and we decided we wanted to live in a ski resort somewhere."
They went to Europe for a year and lived there, but never felt at home because the culture was too different. They went back to Australia to re-think their plans.
"We looked at New Zealand, but it was too close to Australia, so turned our attention to North America. We found it was very difficult to immigrate to the States so we started reading up about Canada and Whistler kept jumping out at us."
Jeanine and her husband took an amazing leap of faith and decided to apply for residency for Canada from Australia, without coming to Whistler first.
"We just didn’t want to come all the way here, fall in love with the place and then find out we couldn’t get residency.
"We got lucky, everything worked out for us and we know we are here for the long-term."
Did they just "get lucky?" Australians have been coming to Whistler in ever increasing numbers over the last decade and it seems to be working out just fine for most of them.
Libby McKeever remembers a time when she used to greet every Australian she met, ask them where they came from and welcome them to Whistler.
"Eventually I had to give up because there were just so many Australians," she says. "We had gone back to Australian in 1985 and when we moved back to Whistler in 1988, I saw the change. There were so many more Australians here and there seems to have been a huge influx in the last four or five years."
Exactly why so many Australians come to Whistler is difficult to pin down. A number of factors are at work, including Whistler’s growth in the last decade and the corresponding world-wide recognition, which has produced a higher profile down under. Whistler has become one of the highlights of the average Australian traveller’s world tour, joining places like London and Munich’s Oktoberfest as must-visit places.
But Australians are a strange bunch when it comes to touring. They often travel as a pack; where one friend goes, another two or 10 will follow. Word gets out someone has a house in Whistler and the couch surfers start to arrive. It is not uncommon to find a group of 10 or 15 friends living in Whistler who all live within a few blocks of each other in Sydney and went to school together for 10 years.
Canadian Immigration has made it easier too, by making 4,000 work visas available to Australia every year. They are easy to apply for and easy to get. Under 27 and single with $4,000 in the bank? Cool, you too can come and work in Canada.
So what happens? You get your work visa and fly into Vancouver. You want to snowboard and may have heard of Red Mountain or Big White or even Fernie, but... Whistler is the glamorous one. It’s only two hours up the road and everyone knows you can get work in Whistler. You might consider going to Banff, but it’s pretty bloody cold in Banff. For an Australian used to winter temperatures hovering between 5 and 10 degrees, heading to Banff and temperatures of -20 or -30... Well, it seems a little suicidal.
And so, year after year, more and more Australians are coming to Whistler. Exactly how many, nobody knows, but with a few numbers garnered from Whistler-Blackcomb and the Employment Centre, a reasonable guesstimate is 1,200 Australians floating around Whistler in the winter. Not bad for a town that only has 10,000 people living here permanently. (Don’t forget that some of the permanent residents are Australians who came many seasons ago and now proudly call themselves residents).
Australians grow up giving Christmas cards that feature snow-covered scenery and Christmas lights on wooden cabins. Yet the concept of snow at Christmas is completely alien in a land where the temperature in December sits in the high 30s.
Libby McKeever arrived during a record season — 1982 — and was not prepared for the snow at all.
"It looked just like a Christmas card, I thought I was in heaven," she recalls. "I didn’t see the sun for six weeks and when the clouds finally cleared I couldn’t believe I’d been surrounded by mountains the whole time. They were so high I had to tilt my head right back to look up at them!"
For many Australians, Whistler is the first place they have spent Christmas away from their families. Recognizing this fact, on Christmas day 1998, in a small, two-bedroom townhouse at Stoney Creek, a group of friends gathered to celebrate Christmas together.
They were mainly Australians, a couple of Kiwis and some French-Canadians — close to 50 people in all. Most of these people had only met each other over the previous few months in Whistler. Through shared devotion to snowboarding or skiing and a common energy (because it does take a certain type of person to travel to a town like Whistler), they had already forged a strong friendship.
Matt Neil, one of the group gathered for the Christmas celebration, is typical of the Australians who come to Whistler. Halfway through a hospitality degree at university, he got a work visa and came to Whistler to get some experience in the hotels while indulging his passion for snowboarding. He’s stayed a season or two longer than he planned, but is finally making the move back to Australia at the end of this winter.
With a glass in one hand and a smile on his face, he slowly looked around the room that Christmas day and shook his head in wonder.
"It is so nice to see so many of you here," he said. "It’s the time of year when we all want to be with our families, but as travellers, we know that’s not possible. I would have to say though that I feel like all of you are my family here today, and I feel privileged to be sharing Christmas with all of you."
Leaving home is hard; travelling is hard; going places where you know nothing and no one is hard. It is human nature to try and make life as easy as possible and, by coming to Whistler, Australians know there is a comfort level, a cushion of familiarity and similarity that will make it easier and more fun to be here. It also becomes one of the reasons why it is so hard to leave this town and continue travelling.
When Melinda first arrived in Whistler she had come straight from home, straight from university; she’d never had to make any life decisions of her own. Whistler made her realize for the first time that she had control of her life.
"There is a sense in Whistler you can be anything you want to be, people accept you for who you are, not where you came from," she says.
This is a feeling echoed by Libby. She and her husband Gordon own Rainbow Retreats, a property management company. When they decided to get married, they’d planned on doing a winter in Whistler and then going back to Australia to live. But they changed their minds while in Whistler.
"There was a feeling you could achieve anything here, you could make it happen," Libby says. "I was a nurse with an interest in art and I got on the Arts Council here, something I would never have done if I was living in Australia."
Sue Adams is another business owner, running both The Grocery Store and Market Catering. She has been involved in Whistler since 1967, when she and her boyfriend started coming up from Vancouver for ski weekends. Talk to her about Whistler’s appeal to Australians and she says: "When you grow up in our home town, it’s just there, it’s not really growing or developing, but Whistler was different. It was so exciting to be involved in a community that was just being built."
These three women are Australians who came to Whistler for a season and ended up staying. There are many more who come for a season and stay an extra few months or an extra year before moving on, and they talk of the same sense of community.
Jacqui Figgis came for the 1997-98 winter and planned to leave in March. A year and a half later and she too has fallen in love with a Canadian and with snowboarding and is here indefinitely.
"I hate small towns but this place has everything because of the tourists, plus it doesn’t have so many of the negatives you get in a big city," Figgis says. "I love Whistler because you can go into the village and you will always see people you know, there is a real sense of community."
The sheer numbers of Australians in Whistler is starting to have an effect on the town. Perhaps the most noticeable indicator of Australians here is the huge success of the Australia Day party The Longhorn throws every year. The average Whistlerite is more likely to know the date of Australia Day than the date of Quebec’s national day.
Australia Day has almost become a victim of its own success. Too many people want to join in the fun and chaos that rules Whistler every Jan. 26. Ironically, Australia Day was just one of many ideas when, back in 1989, The Longhorn decided to try and perk up interest in the bar. Lenn Van Leeuwan was the Longhorn manager back then. He’d been to Australia and knew something about Australian culture.
"We were trying out all kinds of different things then so we thought celebrating Australia Day might bring in a few people. We kept it low key, just took out a few small adverts and put up a couple of posters."
It was the same night as a manager’s stag party so Van Leeuwan left a junior manager in charge and went off to party.
"We called up halfway through the night to see how it was going and the junior manager was just swamped. There were line-ups halfway down to the square."
They coped, and now every year The Longhorn orders in Australian beer, plays Australian music and films and the place is packed. The line-ups now start at 9:30 in the morning.
Food is a defining point of a culture. Think Mexico without burritos, England without fish and chips, France without frogs legs. Taken a walk down the aisles of Nesters lately? Nesters now stocks Vegemite (a yeast extract Australian children are addicted to by the age of three), Tim Tams (the ultimate chocolate biscuit, best eaten by biting off each end and then sucking coffee through it) and Violet Crumbles (a chocolate bar so divine ask an Australian what they miss about home and the odd one is bound to reply, with a faraway look in his eyes, ‘Violet Crumbles...’). Nesters, "where the locals shop." Guess the locals are Australian.
Australians are on the radio station, running businesses and working for the mountain. It’s all cool though, they can only stay here legally for a year, then it’s either off to London for some decent house music and nightlife or back home to start a real life.
Of course it’s not quite like that, some people just never leave. Much like the last bar customer who won’t take the hint when the music stops and the lights go on, some Australians are just staying. And staying. Their work visa runs out so it’s off to Seattle to come back in on a tourist visa and weigh the options. There are four: stay on funds saved over the year; work illegally as a cleaner or a nanny; go work in London or Australia and come back next season; or make the commitment and apply for landed immigrant status.
Jeanine and her husband applied for residency; Melinda got her Canadian boyfriend to sponsor her landed immigrant application; Libby fell in love with and married a Canadian so applied as a landed immigrant; Sue came to Canada so long ago that when she originally wanted to work here as part of her overseas trip the only way to do it was apply as a landed immigrant. Jacqui has just started the long process of applying as a landed immigrant, sponsored by her Canadian husband.
These women are all here legally. There is an unknown number of Australians who live between Whistler and Australia, going back and forth every year on tourist visas and trying to work out how they can legally stay in the country. We can’t talk about them because some bored immigration officer might decide it’s time to crack down on Whistler. But why do people make the effort to remain here? Well, sometimes it’s because Whistler blew the stuffing out of their life.
Just listen to Melinda Gram.
"Are you ready to here a wonderful love story?" she asks, as a smile grows across her face. Hers is a story of a young girl leaving home for the first time and coming to Whistler on a six-week ski instructors course. The night she arrived, Melinda had to attend a seminar on ski bindings.
"I remember that night so clearly," she says. "I walked into the room and immediately felt this guy looking at me, he was the instructor giving the course. The whole time he spoke, he spoke straight to me. I found out later he’d turned to his friend when I walked in and said, ‘that’s the girl I’m going to marry’."
His name was Dave and he was 19.
"Here I was, away from home for the first time, engaged to get married, thinking my life is all set and ready to go in Sydney and this boy starts chasing me."
They started hanging out and over the next six weeks developed an incredible friendship.
"I couldn’t be physical with him in any way because of Greg, my fiancé, but Dave still did all these incredible things for me. One night, on a full moon, he turned up on my doorstep and told me I was going snowmobiling with him. I had never done anything like that before. The sky was clear and the moonlight reflected off the snow making it as bright as day. We went up the mountain and rode around all night."
Melinda was beginning to fall for Dave but knew she had to go back to Australia and her fiancé in May.
"In late April we decided to head up to Meager Creek hot springs with some friends for a night. I was due to leave in less than a week and it was the last crazy thing Dave and I would get to do together."
The road to Meager Creek is never easy, especially in late April when there is still snow around. None of the group had been there before and after getting lost a few times in the dark, the five friends finally made it to the hot springs about 1 a.m.
"It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen," Melinda says. "There was still snow all around the springs and the steam was rising into the cool night air. We didn’t want to get lost walking out in the dark again so waited for daylight to leave. By then we were all very tired and drained from sitting in the springs for four hours."
Melinda tells this story with no hint of the ending to come. It’s like a great love story she’s spinning out and nothing but a happy ending is possible.
"Driving back, Chris fell asleep at the wheel and we crashed."
It was 5 a.m., on the road from Meager Creek, miles from anywhere and the five friends had no way of calling for help. Tim was unconscious. Melinda was trapped in the back seat of the car and, from the pain, realized her back was probably broken.
"We were so lucky, a group of ski rescue guys found us 10 minutes later. They were on their way to work. Tim was a local, he’d grown up in Whistler and they knew him so he was airlifted out first. He was in a coma by that stage."
Melinda pauses and looks away.
"The only thing that got me through the next three hours of pain was Dave. He could reach my hand and was stroking it, telling me how much he loved me, that he would look after me and he didn’t care if I was paralyzed or anything. He told me he would marry me."
Melinda’s back was broken and she couldn’t fly back to Australia until it healed.
"I moved in with Dave and he looked after me for three weeks, bathed me, fed me, dressed me, took me to physiotherapy. I could not have survived those three weeks in Whistler without Dave."
Despite this, Melinda knew she still had to go back to Australia, which she did in late May.
"As soon as the plane landed I knew I had to go back to Whistler. My friends thought I was crazy. Greg was a self-made millionaire by then and Dave was a penniless university student, but it didn’t change how I felt about Dave or Whistler."
She sold her car, gave everything away and flew straight back to Canada. It’s been more than eight years and Melinda and Dave are no longer together, but Melinda remains in Whistler.
Her story is not one in a thousand. Sue and Libby have similar, if less dramatic, tales to tell.
"Australians bring a lot of spirit to Whistler and show us that it’s okay to be playful and fun and still work hard," says The Longhorn’s Van Leeuwan. "They bring character and give us more of an international feel. That makes the tourists feel more comfortable here.
"Whistler would be a much dryer place without them."