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Whistler council hopefuls talk environment, community at final all-candidates meeting

Wednesday's meeting, jointly hosted by AWARE and WCSS, was the final public opportunity to question council candidates ahead of election day on Oct. 15.
Candidate Gordon Jeffrey (seated second from left, bottom row) answers a question posed by AWARE executive director Claire Ruddy, left, during the final all-candidates meeting ahead of Whistler's Oct. 15 municipal election.

The community had its last chance to question Whistler council hopefuls in a public setting ahead of election day, during the fifth and final all-candidates meeting, held at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Wednesday night, Oct. 5. 

Hosted by the Association of Whistler-area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) and the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) and moderated by Dan Wilson, the intent of the meeting was to press candidates about their views on "conservation, climate and community well-being" in the resort, while gently steering them away from other major election issues—for example, the Northlands rezoning—that have been discussed at length during previous meetings.

There were a few missing faces on stage: mayoral candidates Brian Walker, Marcus Culver, and incumbent Jack Crompton. 

"We're posing a number of questions as host organizations, and we really recognize the time in these meetings is really limited," AWARE executive director Claire Ruddy told the audience. "So we did something a little bit different with the mayoral candidates."

Rather than invite the trio to the meeting, the two host organizations each sent mayoral hopefuls three questions, and asked the candidates to film themselves answering those questions in two minutes or less. The clips are available to view on AWARE's website and at the bottom of this article, as is a video of the meeting in its entirety. 

The nearly 100 community members gathered in the audience Wednesday were treated to more prepared statements than seen at previous all-candidates meetings, as those same six questions were sent to all 15 council hopefuls in advance. Candidates were still put on the spot later in the meeting, once audience members were invited to step up to the mic.

Still, the largely amicable evening followed a few predictable plot points: housing, for example, reappeared as a recurring theme throughout the evening, identified by most candidates as the key underlying issue contributing to a slate of other challenges the resort currently faces. 

On the municipality's role in supporting community members experiencing or at risk of homelessness during extreme weather events:

Arthur De Jong was the first of several candidates—particularly the four incumbent councillors—to highlight the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) partnership with WCSS to offer emergency shelters during events like extreme cold periods. "The extension of this offering could be an option as we see adverse weather events like the heat dome of a year ago," he said. In the longer term, councillors would need to continue incorporating housing "for all stages of life and situations" into community planning. 

As Ralph Forsyth added, the municipality is working on an extreme weather response plan, though that plan needs to be in line with provincial regulations. Using community schools that are already outfitted for emergency shelters during these more frequent weather events "is our opportunity to help," said Jen Ford. Cathy Jewett explained how the municipality's current response is triggered in practice, and also proposed conducting a homeless count to paint a fuller, more accurate picture of the issue.

Though many candidates used their allotted time to underscore the severity of the community's housing and shelter shortages, regardless of weather, as candidate Rhonda Millikin pointed out, municipal governments are not mandated to provide residents with basic needs like food, shelter, health-care or education. "These are provincial responsibilities," she said. "However, council can, through a bylaw, impose requirements in relation to public health, protection of natural environment, buildings and structures."

In her view, the Northlands site near Whistler Village should be developed with the environmental, mental health and housing crises in mind. "To support Whistler 360, the municipality should make a doctor's office for non-emergency health care available on this site and this should be recognized [as] the essential community amenity required for the Northlands development," she said. 

Brendan Ladner stressed that zoning for shelters and affordable housing is what's needed, while Jessie Morden additionally proposed building a public restroom that includes shower access, or subsidizing passes to Meadow Park Sports Centre during extreme events. 

On the factors contributing to mental health struggles and how to help improve quality of life: 

The handful of candidates tapped to answer this question identified several factors leading to widespread mental health pressures in Whistler, including the "work hard, play hard" mindset so many locals subscribe to, but above all, affordability and housing stressors. 

For example, "I've moved 14 times myself, in the 18 years I've lived here," said Tina Pashumati James. Incentivizing mental health professionals to stay in town is one way to help, she posited. 

From Dawn Titus' perspective, "It is the main role of our councillors to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality and the community, so we need to get out there, volunteer and engage with people in meaningful ways," she said. "We need to stay abreast of every single program we have to make sure those individuals are informed of what we can do for them."

Jeff Murl took a slightly different approach to the question. As he explained, "Council's role is to raise the level of the community and those in it. We deliver services and maintain and operate infrastructure, but we also foster opportunities for non-profits to innovate and create different solutions." He cited his involvement with the Whistler Institute, which brings in-person education to the community. "And that allows different ways for people to bring up their own level, so that they can reduce some of that stress on them, by increasing their wage and opportunity and giving them a hope that their future in Whistler is possible," he said.

Curtis Lapadat said his accelerated housing plan would help ease that stress for some residents—though no word in his answer of how—and acknowledged that while inflation is something a municipal government has little control over, ideas like asking restaurant guests to add a donation to their bill in support of the Whistler Food Bank could help. 

On addressing climate change at the municipal level:  

When asked if and how she would prioritize climate action in municipal budgets, if elected, incumbent Jen Ford said she's "prioritized climate action in every decision I've made."

She said "nature-based solutions," like protecting natural spaces and supporting regional agriculture production would be actions she'd push for at the council table, in addition to continuing the fight for regional transit across the corridor and sustainable financing at municipal hall. For her colleague Cathy Jewett, a founding member of AWARE, being elected for another term would mean continuing to push BC Transit for the electrification of Whistler's public transit and working to help retrofit local buildings for increased efficiency. 

Ladner, with a blue "A skiable future" cap sitting on the table in front of him, told the audience the RMOW currently spends more on paving than on reducing emissions. "What we need to do is establish some metrics about how we make our spending decisions," he said. In his answer, Murl pointed out that "it makes good business sense" to invest in Whistler's assets in a way that increases their efficiency and lowers emissions "for long-term gain," citing the cost of energy in Europe and carbon taxes that are set to rise in the coming years. "Not spending to mitigate climate change is shortsighted," candidate Sarah Rush agreed.

As a turf labourer working for the municipality over the summer, Gabriel Pliska said he'd already been pushing for the electrification of the RMOW's fleet, from lawn mowers to leaf blowers. He also called for the protection of Whistler's watersheds. "I wonder how much ski wax is in our local watersheds," he said. "I'd like to look at ski-wax application on our mountain and maybe try to find a way to ban ski waxes that are bad for our watersheds."

Millikin, for her part, said she would work to apply evidence-based, multi-purpose solutions, but that "protecting our trees" is the most important action councillors can take. "Trees provide resilience to extreme weather of climate change, clean air, well-being and wildlife habitats,and they support our nature-based economy," she added. "Both our current fire-thinning and FireSmart programs are impacting climate change mitigation at a large geographic scale. We need to focus on the objective of protecting infrastructure on the urban side of the wildlife-urban interface." She also suggested promoting ride-sharing over ride-hailing.

Encouraging constituents to choose public or active transportation within Whistler is also a priority for Melinda Lopez, who said she'd work to advocate for regional transit, net-zero new builds and lowered emissions in existing buildings, in accordance with the municipality's existing "Big Moves" strategy.

Gordon Jeffrey was the sole candidate to reject the idea that Whistler's municipal council has a meaningful role to play in limiting climate change. Though he said he takes care to reduce his personal footprint, citing his decision not to own a car, Jeffrey said if elected he wouldn't prioritize climate action more than the current council already has. "I feel like current council has already prioritized climate quite a bit, and I do not at all agree that local governments are best-suited to take on climate action. Quite the contrary, it is best tackled at the federal and international levels."

He continued, "Climate change is very much an international issue, and if we take every possible measure the best we could hope to do is lead by example. Governments of countries such as Russia, China and India will not be looking at these examples and if we cannot compel them to make changes, it seems pointless to me to shoot ourselves in the foot just to pat ourselves on the back." 

On exploring a bid for the 2030 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games:

Whistler is one of the parties working towards a potential Indigenous-led bid for the 2030 Olympics. In light of that work, Ruddy asked candidates to specify the actions they would take "to ensure capacity—staff time in the hall, community bandwidth, funds, etc. that are needed to host the Games—does not take away capacity from the acceleration of climate action." 

One "fundamental" checklist items of an Olympic bid "is that it must empower us to actually accelerate our climate initiatives," explained De Jong. That could mean, for example, using Olympic funds to install EV infrastructure, bring in electric buses and build a dedicated bike lane down Highway 99, he said. "There's so much we can do with the Games to potentially leverage our Big Moves." The Olympics, agreed Jewett, are an opportunity to "expedite" Whistler's existing municipal priorities, including housing and climate initiatives.

James, meanwhile, was the first candidate to call for a referendum on the Games to ensure the community's involvement, earning a smattering of applause from the audience, before that was later echoed by Titus and Lapadat. She also praised the Indigenous-led nature of the process so far. "It's wonderful that they want to promote the Indigenous—I know some of my elders would be happy about that," she said, "but also they're worried about what might happen to the town and everything that goes on around it, with the bears, etc." 

Other topics addressed during the two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting included urban sprawl, social enterprises, youth programs, taxes, helping Whistler's seniors age in place, and the Whistler Housing Authority, to name just a few. To hear candidates' takes in full, hit play on the video below.

The 15 council candidates present at Wednesday's meeting will compete for six council seats on Oct. 15. There are also three candidates bidding for two school trustee positions, in addition to the three candidates for mayor. Find more of Pique's election coverage here

AWARE/WCSS All-Candidates Meeting 2022 Whistler from Arts Whistler on Vimeo.

Mayoral candidates: