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It's the people, stupid

By G.D. Maxwell I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to culture lately.

By G.D. Maxwell

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to culture lately. I’ve been thinking about culture for, oh, maybe the last ten minutes now and already I’m beginning to get the same sensation I get when I suck down a Slurpee too fast. Well, at least the sensation I’d get if Slurpees were made of shredded cotton balls instead of sweetened ice. My brain’s going numb and my vision is glazing and I’m hoping some more interesting thought will come along before I have to commit myself to writing a whole column about culture.

But it’s not. So I am. Fair warning.

It’s Bernard Landry’s fault. Just when you might have thought it was safe to ignore culture, the new pipsqueak leader of the Parti Quebecois and his overstuffed henchwoman of culture, Diane Lemieux, start lobbing idiocy grenades, the opening salvos in a new round of Referendum Blues.

First Bernie disses the Canadian rag, er, flag and then Diane claims Ontario has no culture. NO CULTURE? This from a province whose unique contributions to culture consist largely of poutine – french fries and cheese curd drowned in gravy for those of you who aren’t sure – steamed hotdogs dressed with shredded cabbage and the saccharine music of Celine Dion?

Naturally, Ontario reacted with outrage. This is because Ontarians are, as a lot, uncultured and didn’t recognize Madame Lemieux’s insult failed to rise even to the level of "So’s your old man." in the hierarchy of insults. If Ontario was more secure in their cultural development, they’d have just sloughed off the comment as the delusional rantings of a third-rate politician with banana republic aspirations, which, when you think of it, pretty much sums up nearly everything you hear coming from the Parti Quebecois.

Ontario is riddled with culture. Just look at the man who has been running the place for the last decade or so. Mike the Knife combines the intellect of George W. Bush with the judgment of Bill Clinton and the social conscience of Ebenezer Scrooge. You don’t call that culture? If that’s not enough, there’s... well, there’s.... Cottage culture. Ontario invented cottage culture. I think.

Okay, let’s face it, culture is a pretty slippery concept. Especially in Canada, home of the identity crisis as big as all outdoors. Canadians have been collectively scratching their heads about Canadian Culture for as long as I’ve been living here. There have been Royal Commissions on culture, rock concert benefits for Cultureaid, long boring essays from Pierre Berton, Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood about our alleged culture, and whatnot, a nonsense word which may actually be unique to Canadian culture.

The only conclusion seems to be this: We are not the United States. That Hegelian truth is the bedrock – and possibly sum total – of Canadian culture. The rest of it seems to involve lakes, mosquitoes, prairie hardships and, of course, the never-ending squabble between those whose ancestors lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and those whose ancestors were too stupid to realize they won the same battle and vanquish or assimilate the losers instead of giving them their land back and letting them continue to speak a low French patois.

Strip away the lakes, mosquitoes and prairie hardships – which could as easily define Minnesota, the Dakotas and most of Montana – and you’re not left with much.

Which brings me back to Whistler.

One of the writers for either the Globe and Mail or National Post decided to write off a Whistler trip a month or two ago by doing an article on our fair mountain town. I don’t remember who it was and I really don’t feel like looking it up because the author is really of no consequence; the issue is.

Whoever it was said Whistler has no culture. It would be easy to dismiss this as sour grapes coming from a man whose kids made him come to Whistler in the middle of winter, notwithstanding the fact he neither skis nor snowboards. It would be as easy to dismiss it as a facile, deadline-filling drivel of a hack writer who didn’t bother to find out there really was a library in town before saying there wasn’t – way to go Joan.

But the more important question is this: Is it true? I’m just kidding. The more important question is something along the lines of: What is the meaning of life? Or: What’s for dinner? Whether Whistler has any culture or not is really unimportant in the overall scheme of things as long as the Canadian dollar stays at its painfully low level and we still have condos and timeshares to sell to a bottomless throng of new tourists.

But if you’re into trivial pursuits, you might ask yourself this question: What makes the Whistler experience unique? The answer to that question is closely related to this one: What will keep mountain junkies coming back here after we run out of people who have never been here before?

We have snow, we have chairlifts, we have oodles of terrain, we have bars, we have restaurants, we have shopping and lodging. Of course, with that description, you’d be hard-pressed to know if I was writing about Whistler or Vail or Sun Valley or Banff.

And that’s the point. Whistler’s still riding a buzz of newness. People are still coming to find out what the big mountain experience they’ve heard and read about is really like. But as the resort matures, as fewer of the people who participate in what is still an industry with no growth haven’t been here before, how do we keep them coming back? What’s unique about this place or at least sufficiently different to make them choose here instead of there? What is the Whistler Experience?

It’s the people, stupid.

It’s the people who shape the experience. From the service at breakfast, to the check-in at Whistler Kid’s, to the helpful or surly liftie, to the kamikaze slopeside conditions, to après, to dinner, to bed, the multitude of interactions with people make or break the quality of the experience.

And if you haven’t noticed, the mood of many of those people is not very good this year. Whether it’s lousy housing conditions or short-sighted, penny-pinching management decisions to cut shifts and hours, the high cost of living and eating or the lack of free time because you work too many jobs or simply the feeling you’re not important to the success of this operation, there is way more discontent among the worker bees this year than there has been for as long as I’ve been here.

I would humbly suggest we begin to look at more ways to celebrate our people instead of counting our beans, numbering our visitors and patting ourselves on the back over another good year. The long-term success of this experiment depends on it. It’s a cultural thing.