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Pique n' your interest

Scenes from the class war

Gentrification: The restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people. (

Anyone sticking their finger in the air to find out which way the wind is blowing in Whistler these days is likely to get it bitten off.

The rank and file of this town, the people who tune your skis, fix your lattés, cook your food, stock your shelves, and write the newspaper columns that line your hamster cages, have been pushed to the brink. The claws of profiteering, disguised as the slightly more benevolent claws of progress, are even now tightening around our hearts and pitiful wallets.

Despite all the foresight of our community leaders and their conscientious efforts to avoid this fate, Whistler appears destined to follow Vail, Aspen and other failed social ski town experiments down the road to incompatibility. The notion that the rich and the poor – excuse me, the affluent and lower income people – can somehow co-exist in the same valley is just not panning out.

It takes all kinds to make a community, but increasingly the town has been sharply polarized into two distinct groups: the haves and have-nots. Our shrinking middle class, and there was a viable middle class here once, can no longer afford to live in Whistler, and is crying out for property tax and school tax relief – anything that would allow them to be able to stay here just a little longer.

The fact that their houses are now worth a million dollars is more of a burden than a windfall to these people. They didn’t come here to profit, but to ski, to breathe the fresh air, and to raise their families in the mountains.

So how does it feel to be a have-not?

Let me tell you – it sucks. It sucks to worry about yearly rent increases and the likelihood that the house I live in will be sold out from underneath me (for the second time in two years), because the market wants it, and the rising property taxes are putting landlords in a tight spot.

It sucks that everything I buy, from groceries to sneakers to gas, is significantly more expensive in Whistler than it is in Squamish or Pemberton.

It sucks that pretty much all of my friends are seriously thinking about moving out of town in the next few years because they know they will never be able to afford to live here with any kind of dignity.

Compounding all this inequity, we have-nots are losing our working class symbols to the affluent. The Southside Deli, the first and the last bastion of the old Creekside, is being replaced by an oyster bar. The south shore of Nita Lake, the site of the old tennis club and some good squatting parking lots, is slated for a five storey hotel and train station. The entire Creekside base is being transformed into a mini Whistler Village, with the final stages going in this summer. Do the developers really believe they are providing services for locals, which was what they claimed in the beginning, or are they just into boosting property values in the south end of town even further?

Locals are being squeezed out of everything these days, and tempers are rising.

In last week’s paper, for example, Pique received a letter from a British woman who was extremely upset when some people in the Peak Chair line-up threw snowballs at her and others in her ski camp because they used their liftline priority to jump to the front on a powder day.

She compared the snowball throwers to the murderous mobs she ran across while working with a film crew in Pakistan, even going so far as to suggest that her Whistler experience was actually worse.

The comparison was more than just a little over the top in my opinion, and I sincerely believe she should seek some help for post-traumatic stress syndrome to help her work through the horrors she saw in Pakistan.

Still, she has a point. People do seem angrier these days, and it’s not hard to pinpoint the reason why.

Prior to the snowball attack – and I’ve seen a lot of similar volleys drop onto the priority lift line in recent years – she viewed Whistler as a kind of sanctuary in this world. This was the last place she expected to get abused by an unruly crowd.

Although that kind of behaviour is never acceptable, I can understand where it’s coming from. The people who threw those snowballs probably waited for at least an hour in that lift line, standing in the cold, feet getting cramped in all of their equipment. I’ve been that person many times.

Then, just when it appeared that lifts are going to open, ski school groups and ski and snowboard camps appear out of nowhere and head to the front of the line.

For the people who pay for ski school and the camps, it’s one of the perks they believe they have coming to them – although most instructors wouldn’t even dream of using that perk until at least half an hour after a lift opens out of respect for everyone else.

For the rest of the skiers and boarders in that line, however, it’s just another reminder that there are two Whistler’s – one for the affluent and one for the lower income earners.

That’s not to suggest that everyone in ski school and ski camps are wealthy, but truth be told you’re not going to find a lot of long-time locals in those groups. Lift line priority is another Whistler perk that many of us can’t afford.

In the future, maybe there should be an official half-hour rule for ski schools and ski camps on powder days to keep things fair.

The rank and file put up with a lot to live here and the load keeps getting heavier all the time. One of the things that makes the struggle worth it is the ability to line up shoulder and shoulder with everyone else, no matter where they’re from or what they’re worth, and enjoy the powder.

If that, too, becomes a matter of privilege and class, I wouldn’t count on people to remain civil.