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Brainy Whistler

The Walrus magazine hosted the latest "brain-candy" event in Whistler's intellectual boom: a talk about innovation.

What do the following have in common: a walrus, a brewmaster, the guy who coined the word "cleantech," and the Australian tree-hugger who got Harry Potter novels to be printed on environmentally friendly paper?

The answer is the desire and capacity to innovate when the world stands in your way; a fearless intent to change the status quo. So heard some 200 people sitting in the packed Maury Young Arts Centre (formerly known as Millennium Place) on Oct. 22, when seven speakers were brought out to speak for seven minutes each on the topic of Innovation.

It was an apt topic for a ski-resort town, which can't be (or shouldn't be) shy of transformation in the face of a changing world economy and climate. Whistler has already expanded dramatically into summer mountain biking, perhaps in part to cushion the blow if winter snows starts to fail. Now there's an effort to fill in the calm shoulder seasons too — to take the autumn gap and stuff it full of culture and intellectual pursuits.

Arts Whistler's new executive director Maureen Douglas calls it Fall for Arts. But it's just as much about stretching the brain as about putting a paintbrush to paper. You can meet with famous authors in the October writer's festival, squint at thought-provoking art in the newly opened Audain Art Museum, or be inspired by movies in December's film festival (which are more likely to be docudramas than footage of skiing). Just follow the Cultural Connector, fed by $489,500 of new federal Canadian Heritage money, to string together Whistler's cultural hubs from the Audain to the library, where you can hear hot topic talks on science and politics. "It's all really growing," says Stella Harvey, founder of the Whistler Writers Festival, about the intellectual scene.

All this makes Whistler a draw for the kind of public conferences that host big-picture thinking and inspirational speakers. In 2014 and 2015, Whistler hosted TEDActive — little sister to the famous TED talks — before that series ended its run (TED is coming back to Vancouver next February, but without the TEDActive offshoot). This year's dose of brain candy was a Canadian TED-like event: one of the Walrus Talks.

For the past five years, the non-profit literary Canadian magazine The Walrus — sort of a Canadian version of The New Yorker — has hosted more than 60 high-powered intellectual conversations across the country on topics "big and small, heavy and light" says The Walrus's events director David Leonard. (The magazine's name, by the way, was meant to give Canadians a better — clever, big and agile — animal mascot than the cliché beaver, inspired by a quote from a Canadian writer: "no one ignores a walrus.") "Our mandate is educational, to start conversations important to Canadians," says Leonard. Previous talks have been about energy, water, vice, destiny, and even the art of conversation.

Innovation lends itself to the Whistler venue, says Leonard. "Whistler is going through some changes in how it views itself and is viewed by the world: as more than just a ski town. It's already a centre for ideas," he says. "Innovation isn't a specific thing, it's more of an energy. It's about environmentalism and social justice and arts and culture. Whistler has that."

Megamalls and tree-friendly clothes

The event brought together a grab-bag of perspectives, intentionally gathering experts who would tackle "innovation" from different angles (see The Innovators sidebar).

First to speak was Kim Baird, the former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation who negotiated and secured that band's self-governance treaty, which led to the glitzy new megamall that opened there this October. "We have gone from being dependent on the government to being an economic contributor," says Baird.

Baird spent 13 years as Chief, negotiating the Tsawwassen band's treaty to reconcile land claims with the B.C. government (she won the Order of Canada in 2014 for her work). The treaty offered a cash settlement, an increase in reserve size and the right to self-governance, in exchange for relinquishing tax exemption over about a decade. "The Tsawwassen treaty is controversial," Baird admits. "It's not for everyone." But for their community it proved incredibly popular: more than 90 per cent of the community came out to vote, and more than 70 per cent approved the treaty in 2007. Baird is proud of those rates.

Getting away from the federal Indian Act, as their treaty did, requires a lot of thinking outside the box. A megamall, on the other hand, isn't particularly innovative, or necessarily in keeping with either traditional First Nations culture or Millennial environmentalism. In defence, Baird says: "It's a lot to expect: a community to solve a new-world economy while trying to get on its feet." A mall offers a big financial gain over a small area. And developers of more innovative industries, such as clean-energy plants, for example, tend to be averse to the risk of building in a new self-governing area, she adds. Because the local population is small and dispersed, the mall had to be big enough to be a destination location.

"The economic development is a means to an end," says Baird. "The fact that we can even develop our land, sadly, is itself an innovation." The rest of B.C.'s more-than-200 First Nations will need their own innovative solutions for reconciliation. "There's no cookie-cutter solution."

shopping for solutions

Nicole Rycroft's talk offered some advice on how to push innovation forwards. "Behavioural change is a really difficult thing," she said, asking how many people in the audience had never broken a New Year's Resolution (I saw one hand up; its owner shrugged as if to apologize for his success, or for making others look bad). Rycroft realized that shifting the selling practices of a few corporate heads would be an easier task than shifting the buying habits of billions of people.

So Rycroft, a self-described Australian tree hugger, founded the Vancouver-based Canopy initiative, to help provide motivation for companies to shift to environmentally-friendly suppliers. Her brilliant strategy was to approach Rainforest Books, the Canadian publisher of the Harry Potter series. "I had to keep calling," she laughs when recounting the story. "I started to feel like a telemarketer." But eventually she convinced them to commit to printing on greener paper.

There weren't any supplies of "Ancient-Forest-Friendly" paper suitable for book printing at the time. Rycroft's genius was to use the massive Harry Potter book contract as a lure to persuade paper mills to develop them. Dozens of new eco-friendly papers were produced as a result, Rycroft says. Although it was more expensive for Rainforest Books to go with new, environmentally friendly paper, it was made worthwhile by economies of scale and all the positive publicity. "It transformed the global supply chain," says Rycroft.

Since 2013, Canopy has been using similar strategies to get endangered forests out of the fashion business. About 120 million trees are logged each year for fabrics like rayon, says Rycroft, and about a third of them are sourced from ancient or endangered forests. In May of this year, Canopy announced they had a deal with more than 65 major chains — from H&M to Lululemon to Simons — to get those trees out of any rayon products they sell by 2017.

Over the wall

Innovation is sometimes described as what happens when you hit a wall. "Sometimes it's a Donald-Trump- sized wall, which seems unscalable," says Rycroft. "But we can do it. We are scaling it."

For speaker Alex Villeneuve, it wasn't so much a wall he was facing as a pile of garbage: the spent grains from beer-making, to be exact.

Villeneuve decided early on (he was just 15) that the key to success in the modern world was to learn as much as possible about as much as possible, because "you never know what knowledge and connection might come in handy." He was inspired by one of his high-school teachers, who taught him about the permaculture theory of "needs and yields:" the waste produced by one system, this theory states, can often find a use elsewhere. The classic example is aquaponics, which partners hydroponic plants with fish to feed each other nutrients in an ongoing cycle. So Villeneuve took all the extracurricular courses he could, hoping to link the waste from one field of knowledge with a use in another.

Villeneuve's bright idea struck him while he was taking a brewmaster course at Olds College in Alberta. The spent grains from beer-making, he thought, looked like they might be good for growing mushrooms. When he tried it, there was an extra surprise: the mushrooms boosted the protein content of the remaining grain, making it good for animal feed. He started a business, Ceres Solutions Ltd, to market the waste-turned-products of both mushrooms and animal feed.

"That stuck with me," says the Writers Festival Harvey, who was in the audience. "Needs and yields deals with just about everything, including the literary arts," she notes. When she started the Writer's Festival 15 years ago, it was 20 people and one guest author in her living room. But there was a need to fill, and her work yielded results: this year, there were 1,800 participants and 60 authors from all over the country.

Other environmentally friendly solutions might come about from innovations fed by a modern mix of big data, new media and neuroscience, argued Nicholas Parker. Parker has a background in venture capital and environmentalism; he coined the term "cleantech," he says, in 2002 to help describe those up-and-coming companies trying to design-out pollution. Now he's trying to help transfer clean-energy technologies to China.

The world is facing big problems, he notes: climate change, pollution, and the next great extinction of species. Elephants, for example, are being wiped out by poaching: 83 per cent of the elephants spotted by a recent survey in Cameroon were dead rather than alive. And according to one estimate, by 2050, there might be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

There might be solutions, somewhere, in the modern quest to understand the human mind: new ways of connecting ideas and examining tonnes of data will surely yield something useful. Parker doesn't know exactly how or why or where the answers might come from, but he has a word for it already: "Nextech."

Quest for change

Two more speakers both came from the event's co-host: Squamish's Quest University. Quest, which opened its doors in 2007 as Canada's first private, non-profit secular university, is no stranger to innovation. In order to get a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences — the only degree that the university offers — students have to come up with a key question (such as "what makes a hero?"), and write an undergraduate thesis tackling it. Students take just one course at a time, for three hours a day, every day, for 3.5 weeks. That allows for rare field-trip opportunities: the course "Coastal field ecology" includes a week-long backpacking trip of the Juan de Fuca trail, and "Quest for Antarctica" includes 21 days on an icebreaker in the Southern Ocean.

The university doesn't shy away from innovation in teaching either. Quest physics tutor Rich Wildman decided to shake things up.

"In my class, there was a problem," he says. "Kids had stopped trying on the parts that weren't graded." The way to fix this, he decided, was simply to grade them on everything: not just tests and homework but also questions asked in class, emails sent to the professor, and chats during office hours. "In my class, you have to be great all the time," laughs Wildman.

Wildman made his change to boost class engagement, he says, but it had a side-effect: he taught his students how to brag. That might not sound like a good thing, but Wildman says that being upfront about your skills and knowledge is a key skill when it comes to doing well in job interviews, or just getting ahead in life. "Without an honest reporting of what we can do, we don't learn from each other," he says.

Former Quest student Andrew Luba had a different take on the topic. Instead of "what is innovation," the more important question, he argued, was "who defines innovation." The vast majority of board members for major companies like Google are privileged white males: the Apple Global Leadership team is 72-per-cent male, 67-per-cent Caucasian, he says; the Canadian House of Commons is 74-per-cent male, 83-per-cent Caucasian (even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed women to half of his cabinet minister positions). Naturally, the problems faced by other sectors of society just don't get so much attention. "So the Canadian food bank is struggling," he says, "while Apple spends millions on iPhone 7, which arguably didn't help a lot of people."

Change the balance of power, Luba argues, and you can promote innovation that's "not profit driven for a few people, but quality-of-life-driven for a lot of people."

Global to local

The Walrus talks, though locally hosted, are meant for an international audience. Like TED, they are all video recorded and hosted on their website (there are more than 300, seven-minute-talks there — see The Walrus Talks sidebar). So most of the experts on stage weren't from Whistler and didn't necessarily know much about it.

But one speaker is at the core of Whistler life: Cheeying Ho, head of the Whistler Centre for Sustainability. Ho's talk looked at the Millennial Mindset, and how it can be harnessed to promote socially-conscious enterprises. Millennials, who like to post constant selfies of themselves having fun, expect and promote transparency by companies. They practice "healthanism" (blending hedonism with fitness and good food), and "bleasure" (mixing business with pleasure).

These sorts of qualities have led to some innovative companies, such as the North-Vancouver-based Wize Monkey Tea. Two guys in business school read a paper showing that tea made from coffee leaves can be healthier than green tea in some ways. They also knew that coffee growers have an employment problem: there's only work for about two or three months of the year when the beans need to be harvested. So the two went to Nicaragua (an excellent "bleasure" opportunity) to build partnerships with local farmers, and launched a tea product that, the founders say, "does your body some good, and does coffee-farming families some awesome".

The Whistler Centre for Sustainability runs a Social Venture Challenge, which helps locals with bright ideas to work up a business model for their company or non-profit; they have helped 15 such groups over the past two years. Those include creative ventures like Dooshi, which makes dog snacks out of the waste from sushi restaurants and juice bars, and Ski Heaven, which saves old skis from landfills by turning it into furniture. It's Villeneuve's theory of "needs and yields" all over again.

Ho is also engaged in other efforts to broaden Whistler's clientele, like the non-profit Whistler Learning Centre that encourages educational tourism by hosting courses for universities and colleges up in Whistler. "A lot of the non-profits are leaders in innovation," says Ho.

It's undeniable that Whistler's roots are with people who ran into a wall (or a mountain) and used creativity and gumption to get over it. The community still seems to have that spirit. "I think it's a place where if you have an idea to pursue something, and you're passionate about it, people will come on board," says Harvey of the Whistler vibe. "It comes from the community, and the sort of people who land here." Whether the people in charge of governance and big business are also innovating is an open question. The Walrus talks aren't designed to answer local questions such as how to solve a housing crisis. But they do kick-start the conversation.

Ho notes that the Whistler Housing Authority, which keeps an inventory of 1,900 price-controlled units that are only available to resident employees, is pretty unique and has done a good job at tackling some local housing problems. Douglas agrees. "Not making the athlete's village temporary was a really smart idea," she says.

"It took Whistler Blackcomb a little while to come to grips with the changing climate, but they need to diversify," says Douglas, referring to the mountain's plan for a massive indoor waterpark as part of the Renaissance project. "They're doing what they can to work with mother nature, but it's smart to realize they don't ultimately have control. There are big organizations that just panic in the face of change. This is better than that."

As for Whistler's intellectual boom, will The Walrus come back? "There's no Whistler 2 planned right now," says Leonard. "But that could happen very easily."


The Walrus Talks

Three-hundred, seven-minute stories can be found on YouTube under the user name "walrustelevision." Here are some favourites:


Gossip blogger Elaine Lui provides some anti-brain candy.


Canadian Olympic rower Marnie McBean on how she learned joy from her bronze medal.


Brent Toderian tells why Vancouver is so awesome.


World Wildlife Fund's David Miller on how people are a part of nature too.


Mary Spencer on becoming a female boxer.


Health reporter André Picard on how isolation can kill you and friendship make you healthy.


World Cup soccer player Karina LeBlanc on getting what you want from life.


The innovators


former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation, who negotiated them away from the Indian Act and into financial independence.


founder of Canopy, an organization that convinces major book publishers and fashion suppliers to get endangered trees out of their paper and cloth.


entrepreneur and brewmaster, who is re-using the waste grains from beer making to grow mushrooms and produce animal feed.


venture capital expert who coined the word "cleantech", and who is now trying to define the "nextech" that will save the world.


Quest University physics tutor who grades his students on everything they say and do, and has taught them how to be open about their abilities.


former Quest University student who wants to see more diversity in the power-brokers of the world, so that more important problems get solved.


head of the Whistler Sustainability Centre, who sees innovative companies popping up that cater to the Millennial desire for socially-conscious businesses.