Sweeping away a town
By Stephen Vogler
Garibaldi is by far the funkiest town in the corridor. Just check out the artists’ studios in the forest overlooking the Cheakamus River, the cafe and bistro next to the old post office, or the weekend dances at the Garibaldi and Alpine Lodges — the two heritage buildings that form the backbone of the town. With 2,000 residents, Garibaldi has grown into a thriving riverside community with a rich identity of its own. It’s close enough to the glitzier Whistler Resort to act as a kind of sidekick and affordable bedroom community, yet far enough away to maintain a healthy perspective on Whistler’s corporate brand of tourism. Garibaldi’s character is shaped as much by the creative people who live there as by the powerful geological forces that surround it. Put simply, it’s a place I’m pleased to call home.
Oh, excuse me, I’m daydreaming again!
Left to its own devices, the town of Garibaldi might well have grown into the scenario I just described. And at a time when Whistler is struggling with an affordable housing crisis that has no affordable solution, a sidekick like Garibaldi, just 22 kilometres down the road, would have been a blessing. Doug McDonald, former owner of the Alpine Lodge and long time resident of Garibaldi, foresaw the need for affordable housing that Whistler’s inflated land prices would cause. In 1980 he was poised to begin developing housing units on his 400 acres of land in Garibaldi. But in May of that year, the Socred provincial government issued an Order in Council that stopped all development in the town, forcing property owners to sell to the government and vacate the area. The Barrier, a large basalt rock formation in front of Garibaldi Lake, was suddenly deemed a geological hazard by the Ministry of Environment.
"It was so complete that, taken to the letter, I couldn’t dig the potatoes I had in the ground," McDonald recalls of the Order in Council. "It was 100 per cent total exclusion."
Theories abound as to why the Barrier suddenly became a threat and prompted such heavy handed action from the government.
"There’s no doubt in my mind what the cause was," McDonald says. "In April, before the Order in Council came down, there was a meeting held at the Alpine Lodge to do with development proposals for the valley. At that meeting, convened by the regional district, Sid Young was there from the (Whistler) resort. They were wanting to limit development between Whistler and Squamish to pockets of not more than 60 building sites. So I asked them what I would do with my 400-odd acres, and said that I had proposed to do an ongoing development that would involve perhaps as much as 1,000 to 1,200 units, and I can remember Sid Young almost bust a gut right on the spot. As far as he was concerned, that was competition with the Whistler area."
McDonald believes the government had an agenda more concerned with development dollars than the safety of the citizens of Garibaldi. A study looking at the potential threat of the Barrier entitled the Report of the Garibaldi Advisory Panel was commissioned by the Ministry of Highways in 1976 as a result of people wanting to build subdivisions in the area, McDonald says.
"I used to have a copy of the letter authorizing these people to do the work and outlining the ground rules, and it told these eminent geologists what their conclusions were to be. For two hundred and fifty odd thousand dollars they dutifully provided that conclusion."
The Order in Council came down from the government on May 30th 1980, 10 days after Mount St. Helens erupted. "It was clear that the government was looking for an excuse to do this Order in Council," McDonald states, "and what they said was, ‘Well, Mount St. Helens and the Barrier’ — and there’s absolutely no connection between the two. Then they used that as an excuse to close down the community."
Garry Watson was a Whistler alderman during the period that the Barrier study was being conducted. He believes the order to close down the town of Garibaldi had nothing to do with Whistler’s desire to centralize development.
"The conspiracy theory; there’s no foundation to it at all," Watson says. "Basically, the issue of Whistler was that we shouldn’t allow parasitic development along the corridor outside the Whistler boundaries. It would just feed off of Whistler and use Whistler services. There needed to be sensible planning and we always pushed for that. But that didn’t involve the Garibaldi relocation question."
Watson recalls that a subdivision on the east side of the highway (not Doug McDonald’s) was waiting for approval from the Ministry of Highways to go ahead. An engineer who had flown over the Barrier brought the matter of its slide potential to the attention of the approving officer with the Ministry of Highways. "He said that he thought it should be studied," Watson says. "So when this subdivision approval was refused because of the imminent danger of another slide, then the government got involved — the Environment Ministry. There was no Whistler influence on that. Through the late ’70s, it was inconsequential to Whistler, totally."
Al Raine, another of Whistler’s first aldermen, also recalls the engineer who brought the matter to the Ministry of Highways.
"Ken Farquharson, he was a very strong environmentalist, and an engineer. If my memory is correct, he was flying over the area, or he got a report in his hands talking about the geological situation at the Barrier. Taking a look at it he said, ‘If it falls down much more, all the water in Garibaldi Lake will come charging through the rock.’ Then the government did the geotechnical study, and they said ‘Yeah, sure enough, the Barrier’s falling down.’
"It had nothing to do with Whistler. I can put that out of your mind for sure," Raine said. "The government’s concern was, here is this Garibaldi going to become a satellite of Whistler, 3,000 or 4,000 people down there. ‘What happens if we have this report in our hands and we say it’s not going to happen in the next 100 years?’ The next of kin would be very upset to know that the government knew there was a risk, and let those people build there anyway. I would have been more inclined to say ‘We’re going to put a covenant on any title down there; we’re not going to permit any further subdivision.’ You put a covenant on it; you take your chances."
Many of the people living in Garibaldi at the time of the Order in Council were willing to remain there under just such an arrangement. Isobel and Norman Arundel had lived in the area since 1945 and had no desire to leave. Ian Barnet, co-owner of the Garibaldi lodge, had asked the government if he and his partner could continue living on their property. There were many families with school-aged children, families who had been aware of the Barrier since moving there, who were suddenly forced to leave behind their homes and break up their community. A government decision preventing developers from subdividing and turning a profit on their land is one thing, but closing down an entire community for a threat that still exists over B.C.’s busiest highway is quite another.
Brian Allen and his wife Connie were the very last citizens to leave the town of Garibaldi. The lease to their land, upon which they’d built a home and workshop, was suddenly cancelled when the order in council came down.
"The little community was fairly strong," Brian recalls. "It was a mini Whistler, and people that owned cottages up there were well-educated, smart people — and there were a few of us locals, too," he laughs. "Guys like Ian Barnet, he was a great spokesman."
The community formed a rate payers association and tried to deal with the government as a group. Barnet and others put out a small publication entitled The Great Barrier Grief outlining the struggle the town was embroiled in. The top headline read: "Barrier No Threat... Gov’t The Danger." The paper offered four possible theories as to why the government pursued the Order in Council: 1) Government bungling (confusion and miscommunication between different ministries); 2) Over-reaction to a tenuous report (involving Mount St. Helens); 3) The conspiracy theory (involving Whistler, Powder Mountain and future development in the corridor); and 4) The land grab theory (involving the government eventually making a profit from acquired real estate).
"I think it was a government bungle," Brian Allen says. "I have a hard time buying that it was some sort of conspiracy. This has been almost 20 years ago now, so if they had something in mind, you think they would have started doing it. I really believe at the time that they just screwed up. Talking to Williams (Allan Williams, former Attorney General) and those guys, they didn’t want to do what they did; they just got so far into it that they had to carry on doing it. They put their foot in the muck and couldn’t get it out, so they put it further in."
And it was that bureaucratic muck, not any debris from the Barrier, that the people of Garibaldi were left to deal with.
Next week: Reinforcing the Barrier? Battle of the Geologists; and Showdown at Garibaldi.