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Pages from his own playbook

Tales of Whistler's ultimate storyteller, Paul Burrows, by the players in his own stories

The first story Paul Burrows ever told me that really stuck in my head involved a chauffeur-driven limo, Interpol and a kidnapping.

An extraordinary force of nature who profoundly shaped the trajectory of Whistler, Burrows started Whistler’s first real newspaper; sat on council for years; led the first pro ski patrol; helped start Whistler Search and Rescue; and, overall, impacted so many aspects of the resort community that his personal story mirrors Whistler itself.

Burrows died recently at his home in Salmon Arm. He was 85. His wife, Jane, predeceased him in 2018.

Although born in York, England, in 1937, Burrows’ Irish roots ran deep, including the time-honoured Irish penchant for telling stories. In fact, his Irish mother, Nancy, a nurse, was a writer and storyteller herself; and Paul and his younger brother, John, were taught both Irish and English, all of which helps explain why he often came across as something of a leprechaun.

On the other hand, his dad, Dr. John Desmond Burrows, was a force of nature of a different sort: A well-to-do, entrepreneurial Brit who owned big tracts of land in Ireland and what was then-Rhodesia, he was stern, strong-willed, and emotionally distant. Interested in politics, farming and aviation, he graduated from two of London’s most prestigious medical schools, then rose to Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War while working in the jungles of Burma and India. And he lies at the heart of Paul’s kidnapping tale.

One pleasant Friday in June 1947, a chauffeur-driven limousine pulled up to the Quaker-run boarding school in Waterford, Ireland, where Paul and John were pupils. Under the guise of taking the boys to tea, Dr. Burrows had the headmaster pluck them from their classrooms. Once en route in the limo, with the boys ensconced in the back seat and papa up front—and this is where Paul would affect a twee English accent in the telling of the tale—his brother asked, “Daddy, where are we going for tea?”

“Actually,” papa replied gruffly, “we’re not going to tea. We’re going to Rhodesia.”

What ensued was a 12-day escapade through Paris and Marseilles, North Africa, Sudan and Uganda, all the while being chased by Interpol. Paul’s parents divorced shortly thereafter.

The whole caper was just one chapter in Paul’s adventurous life. He lived on a 2,800-hectare “farm” in northern Rhodesia surrounded by baboons, leopards and lions. He attended Michaelhouse in Natal, one of a dozen high-end private high schools in South Africa run by the Church of England. So if Burrows came across as a fearless and intrepid adventurer—and a very good storyteller—it was with good reason.

Across the high seas—to Canada

After several years of studying medicine at Cape Town University, Burrows’ “mischievous antics” ended it. Whether he said it wasn’t for him or they said he wasn’t for them, we’ll never know, but he switched gears and returned to England to attend the London School of Printing. Soon after, he was on his way to Canada with 42 British pounds in his pocket, a cardboard suitcase, and a letter from the Graphic Arts Union.

In 1962, he landed in Vancouver where he found a well-paying union job and friends who were avid skiers. It may come as a surprise, but Burrows was a highly regarded printer, who worked for some of the best printing outfits in the city. He became an advisor to the printing department at Langara Community College, which eventually led to his position on the advisory board for the school’s journalism department—and me.

When it came time for me to graduate from Langara’s J-school in 1981, there was a teeny typewritten ad posted on the bulletin board: “Wanted: Reporter for The Whistler Question.” I had no idea where or what Whistler was—I’d been living in the States for 10 years and never skied in my life—so I asked the department head, Gerry Porter, if it was a good opportunity.

He hesitated a bit then looked me square in the eye and said, “Glenda, you could do better, but you could do a hell of a lot worse.”

Eight months into the job, Paul and Jane asked whether I might like to buy The Whistler Question and the associated printing operation. We closed the deal in 1982—the start of one of the worse recessions in Canada and one of the worst chapters in Whistler’s history. The interest rate on my loan to buy the business was 18 per cent. Paul and Jane, subsequently, took off on a year-long trek around the world, travelling by horse, train, bus, helicopter—you name it—through South Africa, France, Tahiti, and more.

But I didn’t regret my decision for a second. After all, I never would have heard that amazing kidnapping story.

All roads lead to Whistler

Paul landed in Toronto, but the summers were too hot and humid for him. Vancouver’s climate was much more appealing, plus the pub scene offered two things: No. 1, he had a stage where he could entertain everyone with his stories and jokes, his 12-string guitar, and bawdy rugby songs he’d learned in South Africa.

“You couldn’t really sing some of those songs in this day and age,” notes Hugh Smythe, who was on the first pro ski patrol with Paul before going on to become president, Resort Operations for Intrawest Mountain Resorts.

“I’d never heard a rugby song prior, and I don’t know that I’ve quite heard anything like it since.”

Paul taught himself to play the guitar (and the accordion) and, by all reports, played well. And while someone described his accent as English, Irish, Rhodesian and Canadian all mixed up in a blender, he had a lovely singing voice.

Two stories circulate about how Paul and Jane met: One has it that she and a bunch of her girlfriends saw him performing at the Devonshire Pub in Vancouver. The other says it happened when Jane was teaching at Britannia Beach and saw him at L’Apres, the restaurant at Whistler Mountain. Either way, Jane fell for him hook, line and sinker. They never parted.

Vancouver’s pub scene also connected Paul to a gang of ex-pats who loved skiing Mount Baker. It’s where he often skied, and first connected with a 17-year-old Smythe as well as Al Raine, another leading figure in the world of skiing and Whistler, and current mayor of Sun Peaks.

Next thing he knew, as Paul himself told the tale, he was living at Alta Lake, as Whistler was called then, in a trailer in the parking lot of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., in charge of the pro ski patrol. Later, he went on to be one of five locals who formed Whistler (Alta Lake) Search and Rescue after an avalanche took the lives of four skiers in 1972.

As important as it was, Paul’s impact on Whistler’s early ski scene was just the beginning. Soon, he’d become more seminal in the valley than he was on the ski slopes.

What Whistler ‘could and should become’

Shortly after Paul’s death, Raine, writing in a joint email with his wife, Nancy Greene Raine—former Olympic alpine skier and Canadian senator, and another force of nature who was pivotal in Whistler—described Paul as one of the resort’s most prominent early pioneers.

“As soon as Whistler opened, Paul made the move and became one of the most active early residents of the fledgling ski area. Strong-minded and outspoken, he got involved in everything, from the Alta Lake Ratepayers Association to the many conversations taking place about what Whistler could and should become.”

The Whistler Question was crucial to those conversations.

In 1975, the Resort Municipality of Whistler was incorporated. Paul ran for mayor in Whistler’s first-ever election race, and was defeated by Pat Carleton, a coffee salesman, as he always liked to point out. It was something Paul never got over, but it spurred him on.

He’d built his first house in 1969, a tiny, 450-square-foot A-frame on Matterhorn Drive, and that’s where he and Jane started the newspaper. In the basement. The first edition got cranked out, literally, on a Gestetner machine on April 14, 1976—one week after Paul’s 39th birthday. Two sheets of legal-sized paper, mimeographed on both sides, and stapled in one corner.

It set the tone of what was to follow for the next 41 years: A good mix of sober news, sports, and fun community items, and always asking questions and more questions.   

Paul  often told the story of how he and Jane came up with the name. It was simple. A big question hung over the whole place at the time: Would Whistler make it; would it survive?

It certainly did, and while the Question is Paul’s ultimate contribution, he would also go on to start, shape, and generally impact the community in so many ways; the list of his accomplishments reads like a community service directory of Whistler. (See sidebar.)

He founded Rotary clubs, served for three terms on council and was part of so many Whistler boards, not-for-profits, associations and community-minded efforts—both serious and light-hearted—it’s tough to keep track of them all.

In 2000, after nearly 40 years, he and Jane finally said good-bye to their beloved Whistler and retired to Salmon Arm, where they built their dream home, a far cry from that little A-frame in Alpine Meadows. Then, in 2012, they had one final mountain to climb. Jane was diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s disease, and Paul became her primary caregiver.

The thing that Jane’s nephew, Peter Elliott, told me last week that he most loved about Paul was the way he looked after Jane in her last years.

“It became his whole life to take care of her,” says Elliott from his home in Kingston, Ont. “He never did anything half-assed, if it was skiing or making wine or putting out a paper, and with Alzheimer’s it was the same thing.

“He became an expert on Alzheimer’s. And he cared.”

When your boss literally digs you out of a hole

“It was the second season of Whistler's operation [1966-67], and Paul and I were ski-cutting—doing avalanche control on Paleface, a slope just down the ridge below the Roundhouse. I made the first ski cut. Nothing released. And then Paul ski cut. Again, nothing released. So I skied down, enjoying the nice deep powder snow—and as I was getting near the bottom, Paul started to ski down, releasing the whole slope, which avalanched and buried me almost up to my chest. I absolutely couldn't move. I was stuck solid. So here's little Paul, my boss, trying to dig me out with just his hands, apologizing profusely.

There's some friction in snow during an avalanche, and when it comes to a stop, it sets up pretty hard, like a snowball. I was pretty scared while it was happening, to be honest, but then it was kind of funny watching Paul working so hard to dig me out.”

-Canadian Ski Hall of Famer Hugh Smythe, member of Whistler Mountain's first pro patrol; former president, Resort Operations, Intrawest Mountains Resorts

Councillor Paul Burrows

Nearly 10 years after his failed bid to become Whistler's first mayor, Burrows ran for municipal council and succeeded in being elected to three terms, from 1984 to ’90. Here are some stories from those who were close to him during his council days.

“He brought a long-term, mature perspective to council. In municipal government, you need people to make tough decisions, often against the will of the citizens. Paul was that person. He was creative and he had a lot of history, what little there was then. Building a destination resort from scratch was not for the faint of heart and we all had to stick with the plan. You had to understand who was there and what happened before and why we should or shouldn't do it again, and he provided that perspective. It was a wild time for us all.”

-Drew Meredith, Whistler Real Estate Company founder; Whistler Mayor, 1986-90, when Paul sat on council

“When Paul was on council, the meetings were over on Monday night and then Paul would come into my office on Tuesday mornings and sit across from me at my desk. He'd chat away about what was going on: What were we going to do now? What was I going to do? I just loved it. I liked the way he thought, and how he always had Whistler's best interests at heart.”

-Kris Shoup, RMOW administrative clerk, 1979-87.

Around the table, he was pretty much the same as on the street: friendly, interested in absolutely every issue, not afraid of confrontation, and dominating the discussion if possible—a real talker.”

-Doug Fox, former Whistler Village Land Company vice president; councillor 1984-86.   

‘Paul needs direction’

“Paul created this huge resource for us through the Whistler Question Collection, and we use that all the time. When we invited him to the museum in 2017 when we had the [event], "The Whistler Question: A Photographic History 1978–1985", the best part was getting an email from him. You'd open your email and it was like, ‘This is going to be a picnic,’ because he always made the most mundane of emails entertaining. He wrote the subject lines like headlines: ‘Paul needs direction’—that could go many ways. Or ‘Paul B. safely home’ after the event.’ I mean, Paul was amazing. There aren't many people we have that much information on in the archives.”

-Allyn Pringle, Whistler Museum events and community manager since 2016.

‘Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned?’

“Paul was a top-notch Rotarian, very involved. A very good organizer. Paul was one of the good guys!”

Brian Brown, 53-year Whistler resident, and Rotary member since 1980. The header is part of the so-called Four-Way Test of Rotary, something very important to Burrows.

Pick the right word

When I asked people who knew him well for one word to describe Paul Burrows, here's a sampling of what I got: indefatigable; talkative; fastidious; talkative; irascible and busy and fun; and talkative.

My "Paul" word is indomitable. If you look up synonyms you'll find descriptors like: invincible, unbeatable, unyielding, lionhearted, strong-willed, steadfast, determined, brave, intrepid, fearless, and gritty. And he was all of those, too.

The opposite of indomitable is submissive. And Paul was never that.

Besides being talkative, the other descriptor that came often for Burrows was "leprechaun," and he was definitely more than a little of that, with good reason.

Is there any Whistler icon Burrows wasn't part of?

Besides starting Whistler’s first community newspaper of record, a quick check of the Whistler Museum's archives and various other resources reveals the kinds of adventures and stalwart community undertakings that Paul (and often his wife, Jane, too) started or had a big hand in. Here are just some of them at Whistler:

  • Alta Lake Ratepayers Association – member, and president 1972-73
  • Whistler municipal council – three-term councillor, 1984-90
  • Whistler (Alta Lake) Search and Rescue – founding member
  • Whistler Mountain pro ski patrol – first leader, 1966
  • Whistler Television Society – member
  • Advisory Parks and Recreation Commission (RMOW) – member
  • Whistler Museum & Archives Society – board member
  • Whistler Public Library Association – member of the first board of trustees
  • Whistler Resort Association (now Tourism Whistler) – director of arts
  • Whistler Museum and Archives board – founding member
  • Whistler's Mature Action Committee – chair
  • Rotary Club of Whistler Millennium – founding member
  • Rotary Club of Whistler – charter member
  • Citizen of the Year – 1977
  • Whistler Chamber of Commerce – director

And the list goes on. Paul and Jane also had various roles in local health-care and the school district, and got involved in Salmon Arm after they retired there.

Still influencers in Salmon Arm

In 2000, Paul and Jane said a final good-bye to Whistler and moved to a custom-built home in Salmon Arm. Towards the end of their Whistler era, Paul had spent years trying to build a retirement community, including chairing the Mature Action Committee.

The efforts went nowhere, largely "because it ran contrary to the youth culture Whistler was pushing" he told Pique Newsmagazine in 2001. He called it a loss for the whole community, much like the lack of affordable housing for workers—another case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg, which is how he characterized the Olympics. 

"In a normal town losing the old people would be a disaster," he told Pique. "But even Whistler will be unable to retain any continuity. You cannot look forward if you have lost the ability to look back."

In Salmon Arm, Paul and Jane continued to get involved in what they believed in. They established the Paul and Jane Burrows Endowment with the Shuswap Community Foundation, which will support environmental stewardship in the region for years to come.

Paul was active in Rotary, a founding member of Probus, and sat on the city's Design Review Panel. He was also a big part of a citizens' effort that succeeded in getting the Walmart shopping centre reduced in size by two thirds because the site is on an ecologically sensitive area at the mouth of the Salmon Arm River where it empties into Shuswap Lake.

"There was this rebel side to him — he was indefatigable. I mean, he was taking on Walmart," says Cindy Derkaz, a Salmon Arm realtor who knew the Burrows well.

"Paul was a leader among the good caring citizens of our community — never afraid to speak up on controversial issues." 

That's a side of Burrows many Whistlerites also well know, as they will some of the highlights that Salmon Arm's Friday AM editor and publisher, Lorne Reimer, included in a tribute to Paul shortly after his death.

With their shared background, the two were also friends, so no surprise that Burrows' final words to his fellow newsman were, "Keep the fire burning."

‘Gone fishin’

“I lived with them in the summer of ’76, in the basement of their little A-frame in Alpine Meadows, helping them with the Question and helping Paul fix their rental housing. We bonded, I guess is the word, and that bond stayed with us until last week.

One day we went fishing on Alta Lake. Jane stayed on shore with the dog, and Paul and I went out in his canoe. The water was so clear you could see the fish 20 feet down. I’d never experienced that kind of super-clear water in northern Ontario.

And I have a picture of him. We’re standing alongside the canoe after, and I’m pointing frontwards, off to the right in the photo, and Paul’s behind and he’s pointing the opposite way, off to the left. It’s like the front end of the canoe doesn’t know where the back end is going.

I always picture that... Jane taking the photo, and we’re all laughing because we were just two guys out there trying to catch a fish—and we did. We actually caught a trout and ate it that night. It was delicious.”

- Peter Elliott, Jane Burrows’ nephew

A big Burrowesque thank you to everyone who provided background (publishable and not), photos and stories for this article. Whether or not your stories are here, they were invaluable in shaping the narrative. Plus, an extra-special shout-out to Allyn Pringle, Brad Nichols and Jillian Roberts at the Whistler Museum and Archives, who jumped through hoops doing research to set the record straight on Paul and Jane Burrows, and their legacy at Whistler. Go to for more stories about them, as well as to hear more tales from Burrows’ time at The Whistler Question