Patrick Weiler, Liberal MP for the Sea to Sky, is understandably a busy guy. As we conduct this interview, he is riding the train back from Ottawa after his last meetings in the nation’s capital before the holidays, doors whooshing open and closed and stop announcements chiming in the background.
When you’re the elected representative for a riding as diverse in demographics as it is in geography, busy is par for the course, and after a year marked by a plethora of issues, from tourism’s continued COVID-19 recovery and Canadians’ worsening affordability crisis, to that two-headed monster—housing and labour—that has bared its fangs in Whistler for years now, it’s clear Weiler will have a lot on his plate in the new year as well.
With that in mind, Pique spoke with Whistler’s federally elected MP for a wide-ranging interview about the challenges impacting the resort and his priorities for the Sea to Sky heading into 2023.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Pique: Let's start with housing. Between Canada’s $72-billion National Housing Strategy and the feds’ new Housing Accelerator Fund, there are plenty of funds available for new affordable housing projects. Do you think Whistler is well set up to access some of that money?
Weiler: Absolutely, and I think if you look at it on a per-capita level, Whistler has probably been the largest recipient of National Housing Strategy funding of any community in the country.
There’s a huge need, and Whistler’s need is for purpose-built housing and workforce housing, so absolutely Whistler fits the bill. The WHA [Whistler Housing Authority] has been a recipient for a number of different projects, and that model is looked at across the country as an effective way to access funding for affordable housing that makes a big difference.
The WHA is only eligible to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, and there’s been much talk of late in Whistler about the need to service the community’s entire spectrum of housing needs, including our seasonal residents and foreign workers, something identified in Whistler’s provincially mandated Housing Needs Assessment and being worked on by the revamped Whistler Valley Housing Society. Does it feel to you like there has been a shift locally to better understand the housing needs of our most vulnerable?
I do. I definitely think there’s a need there. There is a federal program called the Rapid Housing Initiative … specifically meant for housing that can be built very quickly for our most vulnerable.
The housing needs to be built within one year, and you can build new housing or convert existing housing.
That stream is just about to open up for applications in the coming weeks.
We’ve been hearing from the local construction industry just how costly getting projects done here has become. Do you think Whistler is set up to get new developments in the ground given these challenges?
First and foremost, I think it’s making sure that you can build quickly, because the longer things drag on, the higher the costs will be. That has particularly been an issue this last year with rising interest rates, so it’s really put pressure on affordable housing projects and has had a chilling effect on developers wanting to do new housing projects, generally. So, just making sure we can go through that permitting and development permit process quickly is important.
The Housing Accelerator Fund will provide tools for communities to hire more, whether it’s urban planners or permitting folks, to get things built quicker.
One of the other things that’s really pushing up the costs of construction is the lack of construction workers, which is exacerbated in the Sea to Sky … and has gotten more acute this year. That has subsequently ramped up our immigration plan. We are targeting 500,000 people within two years … and specifically targeting people in three sectors: health-care, construction and transportation.
There is still the lasting impact of COVID and what that’s done for supply-chain disruptions. Also, just supplies as well coming from places like Russia … That’s really thrown things for a bit of a loop so hopefully those things will dissipate over the next year. It’s really squeezing the margins.
How does that immigration strategy factor into Whistler’s labour shortage?
We’ve seen over the course of the pandemic that there have been people from across the country coming to Whistler to work, but having that international labour force is so critical.
There has been an increase in the working holiday visa program, so that will be much bigger this year than it has ever bene before, and that will certainly help with seasonal workers.
We know there’s a longtime, persistent labour shortage in Whistler, and I think that’s one of the things that’s made it so amazing to see the revenue for tourism this year. Even with the labour shortage, it’s a record year for Whistler. But imagine if we had all the workers we needed.
A big part of [Whistler’s workforce] is going to have to come from immigration, and early next year, we’re going to be launching the trusted employers aspect of the temporary foreign worker program, which will be an accelerated process for people who have used the program before. Between that and the holiday working visa increase, it will make a dent in the labour shortage, but I think it still comes back to having adequate housing in place.
One of the big issues that happened during the pandemic is a lot of businesses that did have rental housing let them go when the pandemic first hit. Those homes ended up being rented by people, including people working remotely in Whistler that were in the city, so when those same businesses went to go rent those homes a year later when they were opening up a bit, they weren’t available. That’s been another thing that has flown under the radar a little bit that’s really driving the housing crisis.
Prior to the pandemic, Whistler talked a lot about managing its continued growth and mitigating the impacts of overtourism. Now that the tourism taps have turned back on, it seems the floodgates have opened again. Obviously we’re hungry for business after the past few years, but how do we balance that desire with the need to manage growth?
It’s a big challenge. I think part of it is just making sure we’re minimizing the environmental footprint of it, and making sure we’re leveraging and supporting sustainable transportation is a big part of it. That’s a big priority for me next year, to green our transportation system.
I think it’s also creating higher value for tourism products, and that’s one of the things we saw this year: people are willing to spend for expensive vacations, and even though there’s less people this year, there’s been more revenue.
It’s also making sure we maintain a very strong local culture, and Whistler definitely has that … A lot of the tourism assets in Whistler, like the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, really reflect that, and increasingly that’s what people are looking for.
On the island, DMOs have stopped marketing, because what their communities have been telling them is they don’t need more tourism coming in, so they’ve really focused on helping communities deal with the influx. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of that in Whistler and I know Tourism Whistler has been really focused on this issue.
What are some of your main priorities for the Sea to Sky in 2023?
For me, it’s making sure that we can improve our health-care system in Canada. It’s an issue right across the country. In B.C., it’s a major issue, where 20 per cent of people don’t have a family doctor … Getting that figured out for me next year is a big priority, and particularly ensuring we have the workforce in health-care.
Continuing to tackle the opioid epidemic is another. One of the things coming into effect the next couple months is the decriminalization of simple possession of small amounts of drugs, and it will be interesting to see how that will impact people getting the help they need without getting prosecuted.
I want to see the continued improvement of our immigration system. We’ve hired 1,250 new people in immigration and we’ve already processed double the amount of applications this year as we did last year.
[I’m also focusing on] legislation I’m working on right now to modernize the Environmental Protection Act. That’s being completed right now.
I would say other legislation coming up very soon is tacking online harms and disinformation, so this is going to be a very important piece, and that’s something we can expect in the new year as well.
Then, of course, housing is always top of mind, too.