Whistler's mayor leads the charge to sponsor refugees 

Concerns remain about whether Whistler is really set up to help

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CLARE OGILVIE - Taking action Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is asking municipal staff to create an emergency resolution on the refugee issue.
  • Photo BY Clare Ogilvie
  • Taking action Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is asking municipal staff to create an emergency resolution on the refugee issue.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, backed by her council, is paving the way for Whistler to sponsor a few refugee families from war-torn Syria.

On Sept. 9, Wilhelm-Morden asked staff to draw up an emergency resolution for council to consider at its Sept. 15 meeting to take to the annual Union of BC Municipalities Conference coming up later this month.

"We don't have the wording of the resolution yet, but it will be something along the lines of urging the federal government to act immediately to speed up the process for receiving refugees..., and we may well define a number of refugees — in the tens of thousands," she said.

Whistler is not a typical place for refugees to find a new home, and it is likely to be a challenging place to settle.

"It's a long-term commitment that could go on for many, many years," said Carole Stretch, program manager of the Whistler Multicultural Network, an organization working to support immigrants in Whistler. "They're going to need a huge amount of support."

Whistler is not set up for that kind of specialized support at the moment, she said. But that hasn't stopped the community rallying behind the mayor as she galvanized a shocked country into action in recent days, calling the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore, the "last straw" when it was shared across the world on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

"To see that little boy, so senseless and blameless and... dead... well, I cried," said the mayor. "I think everybody who's seen that photo has." She was the first mayor in the country to step out on a limb, far outside her purview as mayor of Whistler, and, along with a few lone trailblazers, kicked off a movement across the country, a movement that includes the mayors of Toronto and Calgary and most recently the province of B.C. — all looking to step up to the plate to help refugees escape the ongoing Syrian civil war.

"My thinking is that the federal government is going to wake up and say that they are going to immediately allow however many thousands of people in and, if Whistler is ready, we'd be able to sponsor one or two or three families," said Wilhelm-Morden. "I've got the authorization of council informally to make these preliminary inquiries and (this week) when I meet with staff, if it does look like we can go ahead, then we need to start talking about what that looks like from a budget perspective, a timing perspective, who on staff will be spearheading it, will there be any partners in the community."

Council may be able to find money in the municipal budget to sponsor families — estimated at $27,000 per family — but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the things to consider, particularly in a rural place like Whistler, with no established Syrian community, few Arabic speakers, limited resources and few cultural connections to their homeland."These people are coming with... certainly mental health issues, mental health trauma and probably physical issues as well," said Stretch. "This is not a short-term thing to help these families. This is long term, and I think that's something that really needs to be taken into account."

Whistler is set up to help immigrants find jobs and homes; refugees need different kinds of support, more specialized and certainly services in their own language.

Stretch is cautious when asked if it's a good thing for Whistler to sponsor Syrian refugees.

"I think we absolutely need to respond to what's happening," she said. "I also think we need to think through how we respond and whether sponsoring families to actually come to Whistler is the best response for those involved.

"We have settlement services. We have a big immigrant community in Whistler, it's over 10 per cent of the population and so we support immigrants all the time. What we don't have in Whistler is the specialist services that refugees typically require... So I think we just need to think about that in terms of Whistler."

The Whistler Multicultural Network is ready to come to the table for the discussion.

Still, the conversations have now begun.

Senator Nancy Greene Raine, who was in Whistler for the 40th anniversary celebrations on Sunday Sept. 6, said the mayor's challenge to communities in Canada to welcome refugees almost brought her to tears.

Speaking at the invitation-only ceremony, honouring three long-standing community volunteers (see page 14 for story), Greene Raine told the audience and the mayor: "You got it absolutely right on. If we all work together we can change things. So thank you, on behalf of myself, for taking the initiative, and the council, to do something, to say to senior levels of government 'we need to work together, we need to do it now.' So these are things that Whistler does. Whistler looks around and sees what needs to be done and makes a way for it to happen."

Bending the senator's ear privately, Wilhelm-Morden asked her to, "please have a word with her friend Stephen," to which the senator replied: "Darn right I'm going to."

Former Mayor Ken Melamed, now running in the Sea to Sky riding for the Green Party in the federal election, attempted to start an international program in 2007-08 when he was mayor of Whistler. The idea was to create an umbrella organization in Whistler that could help organize local aid initiatives with a goal to helping other mountain tourism communities.

It was tied into The Natural Step, which Whistler adopted more than a decade ago, with its fourth principle calling for a sustainable society where people have their needs met and there is social justice and equality in the world.

"We're part of the 20 per cent of the world's population that consumes 80 per cent of the world's resources," said Melamed. "That kind of unequal distribution is not viable in the long term."

But, nobody wanted to take the reins of the international aid project at that time.

"It kind of died on the order table," said Melamed.

He remains sceptical of what Whistler can do, though he said it's the right thing to do.

"It's so emblematic of what's happening in Canada," he said. "In the absence of federal action on anything outside of their core mandate, it's left to local levels of government to pick up the slack. It's happening on the climate file, it's happening on the refugee file now. The question is: What can they do?"

On Tuesday, Premier Christy Clark pledged $1 million in funding to help Syrian refugees settle in the province.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has personally pledged, along with friends, to help sponsor a Syrian family.

Canada is currently striving to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years. It is currently at 11 per cent of meeting that goal.

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