A lesson for all

"I think we have an invitation."

Actually, when Mayor Hugh O’Reilly spoke those words Monday, after three and a half hours of comments and debate amongst Whistler citizens and their council, we had a more limited invitation than the one Premier Gordon Campbell extended to the World Economic Forum in February.

Whether the conditions Whistler placed on the invitation, which include moving the WEF annual meeting to late spring or fall, are too onerous for the organization remains to be seen. The World Economic Forum has always held its annual meeting in January and apparently remains steadfast on the issue of the date.

Regardless, Monday night’s debate at Millennium Place was a new high point for Whistler in terms of civic action and responsibility. Sometimes you wonder if anyone in Whistler cares about anything other than snow conditions and a decent cup of coffee. And then you get an eloquent, passionate display of participatory democracy like Monday night. Young and old, long-time residents and part-time residents, employers and employees – people who care about this town got up and spoke to their fellow citizens.

Actually, the debate for the past month and a half has been something quite extraordinary. When there was no established process for general public input on the World Economic Forum issue, the people of Whistler succeeded in making their voices heard, both those in favour and those opposed. It was a combination of new technology – third party Web sites have emerged as an important factor in local politics and e-mail is capable of rallying a small army in less than a day – and old fashioned grass-roots activism.

Comments were made Monday about how much weight should be given to a petition signed by 1,300 people opposing the WEF meeting. Petitions are blunt instruments, providing only one simple answer to what are often complex issues. But in the case of the WEF, where there was no clear public forum for the early part of the debate and it appeared as though council was going to make a decision without asking for comments from the public, 1,300 names had to be given some consideration.

And it should be noted that council members listened and responded to the concerns raised.

Councillor Dave Kirk called the World Economic Forum issue "the ultimate difficult decision in my 12 years on council." Councillor Ken Melamed, who revealed Monday that he went to Seattle in 1999 to protest at the World Trade Organization talks and may go to Kananaskis in June to protest at the G8 Summit, was similarly torn but in the end found he could support the qualified invitation.

There was considerable discussion Monday, and there have been comments in letters to the editor, about what business Whistler is in and what Whistler "is." This question wasn’t fully answered, although it appears most people can live with the invitation to the World Economic Forum if the organization agrees to hold its meeting in the spring or fall, rather than during ski season. "If we want to be in the business of changing the world, let’s find a way to do it at a better time of year," were Councillor Stephanie Sloan’s words.

But whether Whistler is going to change the world or not, what should have become apparent through the WEF debate is that Whistler is not an island, and no one in Whistler is an island unto himself. We may yet say no to the World Economic Forum because of concerns over security, however many of Whistler’s long-term plans and goals are linked and dependent upon commitments to others. The Olympic bid, and the proposed legacies that go with it, is the most obvious example.

The debate over the World Economic Forum has brought out some of the best in Whistler. We have all learned from it. We need to keep learning.

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