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New Vital Signs report highlights the struggles faced by many Whistlerites

CFOW report aims to be a conversation-starter—just in time for election season
meeeting of the minds The Community Foundation of Whistler's new Vital Signs Connect + Engage report aims to get Whistler talking about community and belonging. photo by joel barde

Just in time for municipal elections, the Community Foundation of Whistler (CFOW) has released a new report that measures the health of the community.

The report pointed to the community's high cost of living as a source of hardship for many, especially young adults and newcomers.

According to the report, the before-tax household income needed by a family of four (with one kid in school and the other in full-time daycare) to make "ends meet" was $111,820 in 2017.

It also stated that the average amount spent on rent and utilities in 2016 was 44 per cent higher in Whistler than the rest of the province.

Young people are "struggling on a number of fronts," said Carol Coffey, executive director of the CFOW.

"When people lose their good friends from the community (due to affordability issues), they're losing their social support network."

The Vital Signs Connect + Engage report is an update of the foundation's 2016 Vital Signs report, which presented facts and residents' perceptions on key areas of community life.

The new report includes updated, 2016 census figures, and the results of CFOW's Connect and Engage Survey, which was filled out by around 420 Whistlerites over the spring.

According to Coffey, a sense of belonging is key to both physical and mental health.

"I view it as something that's really foundational," said Coffey. "If we can create a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging ... we're creating people who are much more resilient and able to deal with (the) various challenges that come in life."

On the positive front, the majority of survey respondents said they find it easy to make friends and know at least one neighbour who they can turn to for help.

Yet at the same time, the report pointed to a number of indicators that show "weakened connections to the community."

Twenty-seven per cent of respondents said they spend more time alone than they would like, and 19 per cent described their sense of belonging as "weak" or "very weak."

Moreover, the results also highlight challenges that stem from Whistler's housing crisis and high cost of living, as 63 per cent of respondents have had a close friend or family member leave Whistler due to affordability reasons.

For Carole Stretch, chair of the Vital Signs project team, the report pointed to the need for the community to have a serious conversation about growth.

Distributed for free and presented in an engaging format, she said she hopes that it will serve as a good basis for productive conversations.

"What we're doing is we're putting this on the table," said Stretch. "We're saying, 'Come and join the conversation, let's talk about these things, and let's see if people in the community want to come together and develop some solutions and ways forward.'"

According to Jackie Dickinson, executive director the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), the report underlined the fact that while Whistler is a beautiful place with incredible recreational opportunities, it is not immune to adversity and challenges.

In Dickinson's view, better housing options for newcomers are key to bringing up levels of satisfaction and mental health.

She wants to see more "housing-first initiatives" that could provide "safe, clean and accessible housing" to people who are just arriving to Whistler, and might otherwise be crammed into crowded, and exorbitantly priced rooms.

"If we, as a community, are not presenting housing-first initiatives that are safe and acceptable then we've already started to fail," she said.

On a positive front, Dickinson said that Whistlerites tend to be welcoming and friendly, and the community boasts strong infrastructure, such as the Valley Trail, which fosters healthy living and mental health.

Dickinson also said she was encouraged by some of the discussion at Whistler's first all-candidates meeting, which was held by the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), Arts Whistler, and WCSS at on Sept. 26 at the Maury Young Arts Centre.

"I think that we've started a really important dialogue around mental health, and I would like to see that continue," said Dickinson.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said that the report speaks to the need to balance community with tourism. It's important to "maintain the special qualities" of Whistler "in light of growth and development," she said.

Wilhelm-Morden added that Whistler's Official Community Plan, which features a section on health, community and wellbeing, is in line with promoting belonging.

The plan's high-level vision statement is: "Whistler, a place where community thrives, nature is protected and guests are inspired," she noted.

Wilhelm-Morden said that from a municipal perspective, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) promotes a sense of belonging by encouraging community participation and input on municipal decisions and policy.

"We consult with community all the time on matters of importance, so the average citizen, by being consulted, feels like they have a stake in the game and that their opinion is worthwhile," she said.

The RMOW also funds the WCSS as well as other non-profit organizations with a mandate to help Whistlerites thrive, said Wilhelm-Morden.

"There are many instances of municipal work that really bolster the sense of belonging," she said, adding that housing, affordability and transit have been key priorities of council.