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Opinion: Latest WCSS stats show Whistlerites are far from thriving

'There is beauty here that we’re privileged to be a part of that is inspiring—but mountains don’t solve problems'
a-editorial june 2022
Whistler residents are spoiled by natural beauty, but as Whistler Community Services Society's Jackie Dickinson points out, "mountains don't solve problems."

Since Whistler’s new Official Community Plan was adopted in June 2020, I’ve heard many on council and among municipal staff sing the praises of the community’s new guiding vision statement.

And I have to admit, it is catchy and concise: Whistler—A place where our community thrives, nature is protected and guests are inspired.

Doesn’t that just say it all?

It really is refreshing to live in a place that emphasizes nature and the environment, and I will never get tired of seeing excited tourists take photos with the Olympic Rings.

But on that other point—arguably the most important—it pains me to say it, but Whistler is falling flat on its face.

Between soaring housing and food costs, pandemic-related mental and physical stress, a lack of doctors and child care, and a four-month transit strike, it’s been obvious for some time that our community is not thriving.

But new stats revealed this week at the Whistler Community Services Society’s (WCSS) Annual General Meeting further drive the point home.

In 2021, food bank visits hit 9,365, up from 2,773 in 2018—a 337-per-cent increase.

More than half of food bank users in Whistler say they pay more than half of their income to rent.

In 2021, the food bank also served 840 children—up from just 50 in 2020.

In terms of counselling, WCSS outreach services conducted 6,128 visits in 2021, up from 4,922 in 2020, and well above the 2,040 visits in 2018 (a 300-per-cent increase).

“Another interesting stat is in 2018 we were giving out 18,000 snacks a year in the five local schools, and this past calendar year, for 2021, it was 150,000, through our breakfast food program,” says WCSS executive director Jackie Dickinson.

“So those numbers really [highlight] the lack of affordability within our community, and what impact that has, and how important the work is that we get to do. And it’s really crucial that as we continue to do this work, we really need to listen to people with lived experience to help guide us on how these programs are developed to best support the community.”

The stats presented this week are concerning, but they don’t even capture the full picture. Dickinson points out the first six months of 2022 have presented new challenges altogether.

“It will be interesting to see what we get from January to June, because when you add on the impacts of a transit strike, and people need to then use some of that income towards transportation, it’s been really devastating for people,” she says.

“It has really impacted peoples’ sense of belonging, and overall sense of safety within the resort, because they have challenges with their housing environments, and then there’s a lack of affordability or feeling underpaid, and then your ability to get to work becomes challenging. I mean, the reality is, this doesn’t become peoples’ homes anymore.

“I think that that overall feeling of safety and belonging, it does impact peoples’ mental health, and it does impact their ability to make the decisions they do, and then it’s just a ripple effect, for sure.”

So… back to that vision statement. Are we living up to it?

“I think that there is still very much a general enthusiasm and gratitude for the place and the land that we live on … there is beauty here that we’re privileged to be a part of that is inspiring—but mountains don’t solve problems,” Dickinson says.

Despite its natural, inspiring beauty, people in Whistler are not immune to adversity, and many of the people WCSS connects with are “very much in a place of survival mode,” she adds.

“I know recently when I’ve talked to individuals who have worked here a long time, they’ve just said, ‘I don’t see the long-term ability to live here.’ And so when we have individuals not see this place as a long-term home, it’s an in-between place, then yeah… it’s hard to say whether that person is thriving.”

With the Oct. 15 municipal election looming, the wellbeing of Whistlerites will no doubt be a recurring topic in the weeks and months ahead.

“As the election approaches, at WCSS we intend and hope to play a really vital role to bring some of these issues … to those that are preparing to run, and say, ‘What policy, what change do you think you can provide to mitigate these kinds of challenges in the community?’” Dickinson says.

The No. 1 issue on WCSS’ radar? Helping people live long-term in the resort by ensuring things like housing affordability and child care are sustainable.

“Those people that are intending to run [in the October election], finding out how they see themselves as part of the solution is going to be really crucial,” Dickinson says.

Aspiring mayors and councillors take note.