The many qualities of Whistler have been touted about so many times by now, that they've almost become clichés.
We have a vast ski terrain unparalleled in North America, reliable snowfall, internationally renowned culinary offerings, a booming nightlife, a plethora of outdoor activities to enjoy year round and a jam-packed event schedule.
But if there is a blemish on Whistler's otherwise pristine image, it is without question the May long weekend, a holiday that has become synonymous both within the resort and elsewhere with rowdy and unruly behaviour seemingly fuelled by alcohol and youthful machismo.
The Victoria Day weekend, sandwiched as it is between those final fleeting days of the ski season and the kickoff to summer, has long been a headache for local government officials, law enforcement and the hotel sector, all of which have wrestled with just how to safely manage the influx of visitors to the resort — many of whom are soon-to-be high school graduates who come from across the Lower Mainland looking to celebrate their impending adulthood and blow off some steam.
But it was last year's May long weekend, which, despite a drop in violent incidents, saw numerous reports of vandalism and property damage to businesses on the outskirts of the village, and the resulting firestorm of media attention that eventually set mayor and council to action. A task force (yes, another one) was formed to address the community's outcry for solutions, a commitment to increase police presence was made, and a signature event, the Great Outdoors Festival, celebrating that distinct season when Whistler is home to a seemingly endless array of recreational options, was added to the calendar in the hopes of attracting a different demographic to the resort.
The May long weekend, reimagined.
Anecdotally at least, locals have avoided the characteristic rowdiness of the long weekend for some time. Many skip town for the duration of the holiday, or simply refuse to set foot in the village until the proverbial smoke clears.
And while there is some debate about when exactly the atmosphere on the May long weekend started to take a turn for the worse, the general consensus seems to be that it was sometime around the mid 2000s.
"It seemed to creep up over the years," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "It was about 10 years ago we started seeing more of an invasion of high-school grads having their informal grad parties in Whistler."
John Grills, the council representative on the May Long Weekend Committee, which began meeting in February, remembers the troubles he faced along with other Town Plaza businesses while running Zeuski's Taverna over a decade ago.
"When the May long weekend was at its peak, as far as a challenge for operators that might've been about 12 years ago, and I'm just guessing, but I know over the last four or five years it's certainly been trending towards a much better experience," he said.
But the troublesome behaviour, according to Adara Hotel owner Dennis Hilton, who chaired the Respect Whistler Coordinating Committee (RWCC), the original group formed to address the challenges of May long weekend after a particularly rowdy holiday in 2006, said the signs were there long before then.
"Some of the horror stories I heard from members on the committee were that locals refused to go out into the village on the May long weekend simply because they were too afraid, and that had been going on for years. We invested in Whistler in '95, and it was going on then to a lesser degree," he recalled.
"My sense of it is that every May long weekend was sort of on the knife's edge between being OK and complete disaster."
The real wakeup call came in 2008, when a Whistler man and two of his friends were injured in a stabbing in the early morning hours of May 17 while walking home from a village nightclub.
"...The first wave of them we saw was about 10 to 12 individuals, and as we were walking they spread out and almost formed a wall... so that it wouldn't be easy to get by," a longtime local DJ, who was stabbed twice and repeatedly beaten and kicked until losing consciousness, told Pique following the violent encounter. One of the man's friends was reportedly stabbed in the back, a sliver away from his spinal column, while the other was stabbed in the lower stomach.
The assailants' apparent weapon of choice? A screwdriver.
"There was no (heated) exchange, there was no fight. It wasn't like we started something... We were walking and these guys grabbed onto me," the DJ explained, who, despite the weekend's reputation in the resort, said he had never run into trouble before.
Besides serving as an effective metaphor for the sentiment many residents feel towards the droves of Lower Mainland visitors that come to celebrate in the resort over the holiday — and in some cases wreak havoc — it also begs the question: Why wasn't more done in the past to curb some of this unwanted behaviour?
"Whistler could have done something about this eons ago... It didn't have to take another terrible May long weekend like the last one for the mayor and council to act," said Hilton, who presented a list of recommendations to officials in 2007 that he feels could have helped prevent some of the mischief that was observed in subsequent years.
Made up of representatives from local police, the RMOW, the accommodation sector and bar and nightclub owners, the RWCC convened for over a year before reporting to council, presenting a number of strategies to improve the guest experience during historically busy periods in the resort. Some of the recommendations — like hotels restricting the number of guests to a room — have since been implemented, but Wilhelm-Morden, who sat at the council table at the time, admitted that more could have been done.
"It's kind of hard to go back and think about what the rationale was for not being more action oriented with doing something with this long weekend," she said. "I guess people were just kind of hoping it would solve itself, and it obviously didn't and escalated."
Still, Hilton doesn't place the onus squarely on the shoulders of the council of the day, acknowledging that the accommodation sector, eager to attract guests with lower rates during the slow shoulder season, played a role in the past as well.
"I do think the hotels have some responsibility; the difficulty is they're running a business and it crosses over between needing some revenue, but not needing the damage and destruction that these partying kids have done on the May 24th weekend," he said. "Some hotels have just been trashed and paid huge bills, so was it worth the $79 (room fee)? Probably not."
Over the years, the majority of large resort hoteliers got the message, Grills said, paying closer attention to exactly who they are renting rooms to, ensuring that parents aren't simply driving up to Whistler to book a reservation for their underage kids and their friends. Many hotels have taken the step to institute a minimum age requirement of 25 year old for reservations.
Part of the May Long Weekend Committee's efforts this year, Grills explained, was to ensure the right information was being disseminated to resort accommodation providers of all kinds.
"We really looked at... what we need to do to get information out, not so much to the big accommodation sector, because they fully get it and gear up for the weekend, but it's some of the small privately owned condos that may not be linked to that information in some cases, or might not be aware of what happens when you take an Internet booking and then 20 people show up at the condo and it becomes a huge problem," he said.
To that end, the committee brought on Sue Chappel, owner of vacation rental database and booking site AlluraDirect, as the group's member at large to get the right message out to smaller accommodation providers in town.
"She had a different insight and we talked about getting this information out through strata property managers who have direct email access to condo owners to give them an update on what we're trying to accomplish with the May long weekend and GO Festival, what's behind it and how they can help," Grills explained.
Following last year's rowdy holiday, which saw numerous reports of broken windows resulting in thousands of dollars in property damage, the reaction from the community was swift and impassioned, with residents lamenting what the May long weekend had become.
"I am truly embarrassed to walk through the village right now and call this place my home," wrote local Wesley Tyler Menichan in an outraged letter to Pique. "When no one who lives in Whistler is willing to go out on these long weekends because we're afraid of getting stabbed at a nightclub, or our wives/girlfriends/friends (are) being harassed so badly that they break into tears — that is saying something."
Resident Todd Waters, who spent his first May long weekend in Whistler last year, spoke out against what he believed to be the presence of gangs in the resort during the holiday.
"This is not the place for a rite of passage for gangs, and whatever needs to be done to stop this becoming their 'vacation spot' has to be done," he wrote in a letter to Pique. "This is a family place, known to be safe, filled with athletic-minded, healthy people, and this should be the last time on this May weekend that gangs show up."
Whistlerite Chris Walker, meanwhile, suggested taking a page out of the U.K.'s playbook by installing 24-hour closed-circuit television monitoring in the village.
"Perhaps having a high level of CCTV throughout the village would help prevent a lot of the issues, and even better, catch the scum that seems set on violence, destruction and crime," his letter read.
Despite the perception that exists, however, offences on the May long weekend have actually been on the decline for several years, with incidents of violence dropping off significantly.
Officers responded to 125 calls for service last May long weekend, the second lowest total in the past seven years, and markedly fewer than in 2007, the first year that RCMP provided data, when there were 172 calls. Last year also saw the lowest number of prisoners held over the holiday weekend, at nine, down from 20 the year prior and a high of 27 in 2010. The range of incidents for which individuals were arrested and detained in 2013 included public intoxication, causing disturbance and assault, according to police. Officers issued a total of 46 bylaw or provincial violation tickets last year for a wide variety of offences, including for open liquor, nuisance, public urination and swearing. Notably, all of the tickets handed out except for three were to Lower Mainland residents. A total of five hotel evictions were recorded as well.
The one anomaly out of last year's police report, however, was the number of instances of mischief, with 16, all for broken windows belonging to village businesses or personal vehicles, according to RCMP. The year prior saw only five reports of mischief.
"In previous May long weekends during that same time period we had anywhere from three to 11 (reports of mischief), so that was certainly an increase," said Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair. "We believe that that may have been one group that was discontented that they may have been evicted from a hotel, and had nothing better to do than to go around and commit the majority of this damage."
Although grainy surveillance footage was obtained of several suspects, no arrests have been made in connection with last year's mischief, according to RCMP.
LeClair, who patrolled his first Victoria Day in the resort in 2008, said he believes the media's focus on last year's vandalism contributed to the public's mounting concerns.
"It was front and centre in the media and I think that affected people. I think that was what the concern was, that all of a sudden it was out there," he said. "Mischief is on the lower end of the crime scale. Sure, nobody wants to have their property damaged but the fact that assaults have been declining is a real win. It's just unfortunate we had this spike in mischief incidents."
In terms of enforcement, Whistler RCMP will, as in years past, observe a "zero tolerance" for open alcohol and other unlawful behaviour, LeClair said. The detachment will increase police presence and remain highly visible throughout the community, with plans to conduct foot and bike patrols, road safety checks and walk-throughs of village bars and clubs. The detachment will extend members' working hours to ensure there are ample officers on duty in the early morning after the bars and nightclubs close. Additional members will also be brought in from Squamish and across the Lower Mainland, which, according to discussions at May Long Weekend Committee meetings, also serves a second purpose.
"We've gotten input over the years from the RCMP in bringing in the Gang Task Force; they know faces, they know people, and I think that's become less of an issue over the years," Grills said.
LeClair acknowledged "the majority of our problems (during May long weekend) were youth from the Lower Mainland," and said RCMP members are well versed in dealing with the 16- to 25-year-old age range that has historically made up the bulk of offences in the past.
"We deal with young people all the time when they come up here and our approach to them isn't heavy handed," he said. "When I say zero tolerance, the enforcement is swift and fair and done in a firm and friendly manner, and I think that serves to improve the relationship between young people and police."
In the days and weeks that followed last year's now-infamous holiday, the immediate discussions from the both the municipality and community members were on how to transform the negative stigma that had been attached to the May long weekend.
The solution: Develop a family-friendly signature event that would not only celebrate the season's activity offerings, but attract a particular kind of guest. It was a formula that had already been used to great effect on another busy holiday in the resort that has undergone a complete transformation in recent years.
"In the early '90s, I was running Citta's at the time, and Village Square was a challenge on New Year's Eve," said Grills. "Just through organizing the First Night and putting more emphasis on security, it's become a great experience in the village on New Year's Eve."
In December, event producers of Crankworx, a 10-day celebration of all things mountain biking that has since evolved to include a cultural component, were chosen to develop a signature event for May long weekend. The emphasis for the festival, according to Crankworx Events Inc. general manager Darren Kinnaird, is to "celebrate that unique time of year when you have the options to ski in the morning, ride a bike in the afternoon and golf in the evening — that sort of Whistler triathlon."
He explained how the event aims to hit four distinct "areas of activation:" sport, entertainment, arts and culture, and what he called, "trial-learning training," giving attendees the opportunity to pick up a new skill, like fly-fishing, or hone old ones as they prepare for upcoming outdoor competitions in the resort — think road cycling, trail running, mountain biking and marathon racing.
Between that, the Whistler Film Festival-curated Outdoor Adventure Series, the Chairlift Revue, art workshops and a handful of live music performances, Kinnaird hopes to appeal to every kind of outdoor enthusiast.
"In the back of our minds there was always (the consideration) that this festival needs to be family friendly," he said. "Typically what we provide here is a family-friendly environment and a great outdoor experience, so we wanted the festival to reflect that as well by having programming that would attract our core demographic of late 20s to early 50s, with or without kids."
The GO Fest, which runs from May 16 to 19, will also draw on the resort's rich sporting history with the return of the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race after a 20-year hiatus. A six-stage relay race made up of ski or snowboard touring, downhill skiing or snowboarding, mountain biking, running, canoeing and cross-country biking, it's a competition that epitomizes the vision of GO Festival to a tee.
And with a media blitz that will spread nationwide through Canada.com, as well as regionally with spots on four area radio stations, City TV Vancouver, and various media publications, the message that the Great Outdoors Festival is helping change May long weekend in Whistler for the better will be sounded loud and clear.
Even still, municipal officials are cognizant that altering people's perception isn't going to happen overnight.
"From a realistic perspective, it will take two or three years, much in the same way as it did trying to reclaim New Year's Eve," said Wilhelm-Morden. "The message has to get out to the people who've been used to coming to Whistler with that no-holds barred (attitude) that that kind of behaviour isn't welcome."
From Grill's point of view, there is only one true litmus test that will indicate when the May long weekend has made the full transformation.
"It's not necessarily written into our committee goals but it will be kind of a marker years from now... if this weekend grows in the direction we think it will and becomes more and more successful then we see a local family or couple saying 'Now I'm not sure we want to leave Whistler on the May long weekend.'"
Only time will tell.
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