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Maxed Out: With a dream and a vision, Garry Watson shepherded Whistler into what it would become

'There’s nothing like a good walk to clear your head and put your life into perspective.'
Whistler pioneer Garry Watson.

There’s nothing like a good walk to clear your head and put your life into perspective.

In February 1984, near the end of his fourth term as prime minister, Pierre Trudeau said it was during a snowy walk in Ottawa he decided not to run for re-election.

Twenty-three years earlier, having walked to the top of London Mountain in 1961, looking out over the relatively undeveloped valley below, with its chain of glistening lakes, Garry Watson knew he was looking at the place he wanted to live.

It was a bold decision, given there was nothing within his range of view to offer a career path forward for a 28-year-old lawyer. But it was a fortunate one for what would become Whistler, the resort, the town, the outstanding Canadian success story he would leave an indelible impression on and help guide through its creation and growth.

Only a year earlier, a group of Vancouver businessmen, inspired by their experience attending the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., coalesced around the idea of creating a first-class ski mountain close to Vancouver and pursuing their dream to host an Olympics. Having abandoned their first idea—Diamond Head on Mount Garibaldi—as incompatible with their plans, they spotted London Mountain, and after some analysis of the topography, decided it was an outstanding site.

But when Garry stood atop the mountain, it was all just a pipe dream. There was no ski hill, not much of a road linking the town of Alta Lake with Vancouver, only a dream and a man enthralled at what he saw below him.

As strange as it sounds in 2023, Garry was a pioneer, a founding father, a guiding hand in the creation, growth, and maturation of Whistler. Stranger still was the opportunity many of us had to know him, admire him, and hear his many stories of how this unique place came about... and how it almost didn’t. There is unlikely to be more chances in the future for others to befriend people who helped create the place we end up calling home.

Garry passed away last week, a few months shy of his 90th birthday, and with projects he was still pursuing to make this town a better place to call home.

His first project was as member of the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA), the group those visionary businesspeople put together to float the non-existent ski mountain as a potential site for the 1968 Olympics. Garry was chair of its first Community Planning Committee. The effort came to naught, but it sent tendrils into the provincial government and laid the groundwork for what was to come.

GODA spawned Garibaldi Lifts Limited to assess the feasibility of developing London Mountain into a ski area. That effort was more successful.

Initially part of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, the nascent resort was saved from unbridled development when the provincial government instituted a development freeze in 1974 and created the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act in 1975. As part of that act, it established a local government, appointed one of the aldermen —Al Raine —tasked the new body to create the first Official Community Plan (OCP), and imposed taxes on property owners to finance a community sewer system.

Garry was instrumental in all that. Serving on the first municipal council, along with John Hetherington, Raine, Bob Bishop and Mayor Pat Carleton, the “real work” began.

A key element of that work was the establishment of a single town centre, something to give a focus to the community. It was believed the best location was Crown land at the base of both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Blackcomb was years away from being developed and the only development on Whistler was down to the base at Creekside.

While the council saw the benefit of siting the town centre on Crown land, thereby avoiding having to purchase costly private land and controlling all the land essential to the development of the town centre, local landowners disagreed.

An ad hoc group of property owners banded together to present a competing vision, with the town centre located north of today’s village—on property owned by them—and made a forceful presentation to the province.

Garry tells the story of the mayor, Raine, and himself travelling to Victoria to meet with Hugh Curtis, Minister of Municipal Affairs, following the property owners’ group, with the resignations of the entire council in the mayor’s pocket, to be tendered if the minister didn’t agree with their plan to build Whistler Village at the base of the mountains.

They were relieved of that onerous task when the minister, referring to the competing proposal, described it by saying, “You know, I never saw such a display of ‘bullshit baffles brains’ in my life.”

The disappointed property owners, failing to believe anyone could be inspired by anything other than self-interest, tried to make charges of conflict of interest and/or corruption stick. Neither did, although the RCMP officer investigating the latter, including tapping the phones of members of council, reported he had, “investigated many municipalities and never found one quite as lily-white as Whistler.”

From the first OCP, to the development of Whistler’s sewer system, to the planned design of the village, to the so-called provincial bailout when interest rates threatened to bankrupt the partially built village, to issues he was working on until he took his last breath last week, Garry was right in the middle of virtually every decision that made Whistler what it is today.

Since 1964 when he built his first cabin, Garry called Whistler home. His efforts garnered him most of the recognition anyone can receive from their hometown. He received a lifetime ski pass in 1975. He was, by Mayor Jack Cromtpon’’s reckoning, the second person to be awarded the Freedom of the Municipality when he was granted that honour in 1980. In 2005, he was named Citizen of the Year. He was recognized with a Community Achievement Award from the province’s Lieutenant Governor in 2008.

And on a sunny day two weeks ago, sharing lunch on the patio at Dusty’s, the last time I saw him, he told me about his greatest reward. “It was 38 years ago, after a day of skiing, I first kissed my wife, Anne Popma, on Dusty’s patio.”

Whistler will miss you, Garry. It wouldn’t be the same place without your hard work and dedication all these years.