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Focusing Whistler’s altruistic efforts

When the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami struck countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, killing more than 200,000 people and displacing over 1 million, people around the world rallied to the cause. Some donated money, others contributed time and effort.

When the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami struck countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, killing more than 200,000 people and displacing over 1 million, people around the world rallied to the cause. Some donated money, others contributed time and effort. And a few, like the people of Squamish, decided to make a long-term, commitment on a personal level. Squamish “adopted” a village in Sri Lanka and the Canadian community helped the Sri Lankan community recover.

Many people in Whistler made contributions of money, material goods and time to the tsunami recovery effort, individually, through businesses, clubs and fundraisers and through a rally held at the conference centre. But any sort of coordinated community effort, like that of Squamish, bogged down in researching the best channels to funnel assistance. As a result, the community effort fizzled.

But the idea of Whistler helping others in need around the world has remained in many people’s minds, including Mayor Ken Melamed’s. A task force was struck in the spring to examine the most effective ways Whistler could assist people in other parts of the world. Its recommendations should be coming forward next month.

Helping others is hardly a new concept but the idea of “doing good” has gained new status in Western society. Whether that’s a reflection of a new generation of more conscientious people, an extremely affluent Western society with lots of time and money on its hands, a world more desperate for help than ever before, or some combination of factors, there is no shortage of efforts to make the world better. Bears, climate change, the 100 mile diet, foster parent plans, safe drinking water, vaccinations, education programs — the list of good causes and the people willing to support them seems endless. Next month, there are two separate bike rides in Vancouver on the same weekend to raise money to fight cancer.

And there often seems to be a celebrity or two associated with each cause. From Al Gore’s efforts to educate us about climate change to Angelina Jolie’s adoptions to Thomas Grandi and Sarah Renner buying carbon offsets for their travels, we seem to pay more attention, at least for a little while, when someone famous is involved.

There is also a sort of escalating arms race to do good. One example can be found in Allen Best’s Mountain News roundup of stories. Over the last 18 months we’ve seen one resort corporation try to out-green another. Aspen Ski Corp. has made sure the world knows about its efforts to reduce green house gas emissions and reduce its environmental footprint. That, in turn, has led Vail Resorts, and others, to pay premium prices for “green energy” and to announce their own programs to fight climate change.

Mountain resorts, of course, have a very personal stake in the environment and the climate — they are key to their very existence. Making efforts to protect the environment and combat climate change is also the morally correct thing to do. But there is also an element of marketing involved. Part of the reason resorts are going green is because consumers want to feel they are being green when they go to a resort.

Marketing plays a significant role in this new era of doing good. That’s not a cynical comment or meant to dismiss the majority of people whose motivation comes from genuine concern for others, for animals or for the environment. But the more publicity a cause receives, through association with a celebrity, an event or some other way, the more successful it is likely to be.

Which, finally, brings us back to Whistler and its soon-to-be-better-defined altruistic efforts. No doubt, Whistler can have a positive impact elsewhere in the world if it sets its mind to it. But what sort of impact could Whistler achieve if it was the focus of the world’s attention for a couple of weeks and leveraged that attention to spread the word and rally support for a particular cause?

In its strategic framework for the 2010 Winter Olympics Whistler has identified 11 objectives. They all relate to what Whistler, Canadians and the IOC want to achieve through the Games.

That’s not to say that through the Olympics Whistler hasn’t helped others. Significant agreements and partnerships with First Nations have developed through preparations for the Olympics. And Whistler has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Canadian Olympic Committee to help Canadian athletes.

But there is also an opportunity for Whistler — as a community — to raise awareness and take action to address a specific cause. This doesn’t have to come from the municipality, Tourism Whistler or Whistler-Blackcomb — indeed, the IOC would probably frown on any of its official partners trying to leverage the Games.

But the community of Whistler can make a statement about what it stands for during the Olympics. And with the world’s media focused on Whistler that statement may reverberate around the world.