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Opinion: Just because Whistler is equipped to host the Olympics doesn’t mean we have to

Local, provincial and First Nations officials—including Lil'wat Chief Dean Nelson, far left, and Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton, far right—announcing the exploration of a 2030 Olympic bid in December.

We sometimes joke in the Pique newsroom that Whistler’s occasionally fraught relationship with tourism can feel like dating a rich but indifferent boyfriend we just can’t seem to quit. 

No matter what boundaries we try to set, no matter how much we promise ourselves, This time will be different, whenever he comes strolling back in, flashing those fancy clothes and fat wads of cash, we always welcome him back with open arms. We even tried to take these past two-plus years of barely talking, barely seeing each other, to reassess the relationship, to really figure out what’s best for us. But now he’s returned to make amends, and he’s come bearing the shiniest, most expensive gift that money can buy: the 2030 Olympic Winter Games. 

I’m being a little bit facetious in stretching this toxic-boyfriend analogy, but after listening to the local powers that be spend the pandemic talking ad nauseum about “building back better,” about the urgent need to balance visitation in the face of “unconstrained” growth, about the “extraordinary changes” needed to even approach meeting our climate goals, about the crushing economic realities facing our overworked and underhoused frontline workers, it’s difficult to reconcile all that with our desire to host one of the biggest, costliest live events on the planet. 

Can’t live with him, can’t live without him. 

Despite all this, I’m not even against bringing the Games back to the resort. Truth is, it’s tough to know where to stand at this early stage. There’s no questioning many of the most significant amenities Whistler enjoys today—from world-class sporting venues and employee housing to an improved highway and lucrative hotel tax—were a direct result of the 2010 Games. But there’s been a certain inevitability to the language used by some of the resort’s elected officials when describing the joint First Nations-Vancouver-Whistler-Sun Peaks bid that strikes me as potentially worrisome. 

In an interview with Pique last month, after rhyming off the list of benefits the community saw flow out of the 2010 Games, Councillor Ralph Forsyth said it would be “selfish” of us not to host the Olympics again. Well, then. I’d argue shouldering the burden of hosting a global event estimated to cost taxpayers as much as $1.2 billion just because we can would be selfish. 

There’s also the fact that many locals are struggling now, so a whole suite of benefits eight years into the future won’t mean much to them. Then you have to question why a once-every-two-decade Olympics should serve as the largest single injections of affordable housing this town has ever seen.

There is a rather convincing argument for hosting the 2030 Games, however, and that is the opportunity for the event to be shaped and led by the four host First Nations that have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Vancouver and the RMOW: the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. 

The 2010 Games were unquestionably transformative for the Squamish and Lil’wat, and you can draw a direct line from those Olympics to the political, cultural and economic empowerment both Nations continue to harness today, thanks in part to the legacy land swap and development rights they gained as a result of hosting the event on their ancestral lands. 

Dubbed by some as “The Reconciliation Games,” the 2030 bid has the potential to build even further on this promise. B.C., and by extension Whistler, can and should be a beacon to other countries contending with their own colonial histories of cultural (and, in some cases, literal) genocide. The Games offer an unparalleled platform to share this story on a global scale, but it’s certainly not the only platform, and, given its spotty history, there is good reason to wonder whether the Olympics™ are the best vessel through which we advance this urgent effort.  

Reconciliation, true reconciliation, happens inch by inch, not over two weeks of highly corporatized televised sport, and I worry that all the monied interests surrounding the Games could stand in the way of this essential progress. I am heartened, however, by the Nations’ unanimous support for the bid, as well as the RMOW’s commitment, according to Mayor Jack Crompton, to continue the journey already started with our local First Nations even if we don’t land the Olympics in 2030. We have a rare opportunity to set an example in the international sphere, so let’s ensure it’s done in a genuine way, following the Nations’ leadership. 

There’s no denying there are still several crucial questions left to answer about the bid, not least of which is who will be left holding the bag should the Games run over projected costs, as they so often do. So, while I’m not necessarily against Olympics 2.0, I sincerely hope we can stop to take a moment to better understand its implications before we rush headlong into such a massive undertaking, even with the prospect of advancing reconciliation dangling before us. 

Beginning to heal the historical wounds of Canada's Indigenous Peoples is long overdue in this country, but it won’t happen if it’s rooted in corporate interests or political manoeuvring. Reconciliation, after all, should be a bridge, not a cudgel. 

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