Former premier has a message, and a mission 

Harcourt challenges Whistler to push itself and become first sustainable community

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By Andrew Mitchell

Former Premier Mike Harcourt had a message and a mission for Whistler, as he opened the third discussion in the Sustainability Speaker Series Friday, June 15, at the Telus Whistler Conference Centre.

Harcourt has been an advocate for sustainable communities throughout his 24 year career in B.C. politics, and became involved in sustainability issues long before that as a lawyer representing communities that opposed the creation of an elevated highway through Vancouver and the waterfront. In recent years he has chaired the federal External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities, which tabled a report called “From Restless Communities to Resilient Place: Building a Stronger Future for all Canadians”. That report has been well-received at the federal level, and according to Harcourt has helped result in the transfer of $39 billion towards cities and local governments over the next seven years.

Currently 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas. That is expected to shift to 90 per cent in the next 10 years.

Harcourt is also preparing to release a book called City Making in Paradise, along with co-author Ken Cameron, that documents the nine major decisions that were made in Vancouver to make it internationally recognized as one of the most livable cities in the world.

Before his presentation in Whistler, Harcourt had a chance to sit down with local politicians and discuss sustainability in the Whistler area. He credited Whistler for leading the way in North America by adopting The Natural Step sustainability framework, and taking that to the next stage with the creation of the Whistler 2020 strategy.

However, he issued a short list of challenges to the community to make it more sustainable.

“Whistler is a wonderful place but it’s still not sustainable,” he said. “What can you do to bring yourself to the next level? I think you really need to push yourself here because you are an important resort… and people will pay attention. This resort is built on people getting onto planes, staying in luxury hotels, eating in restaurants — in principle that doesn’t say you could ever be sustainable, but I think you can prove them wrong.

“Accepting these inconsistencies is what life is all about. Whistler can work to become as sustainable as possible and be a model of what sustainable resorts can be like.”

Most of the challenges issued by Harcourt are already incorporated in Whistler 2020 at some level, or are official Resort Municipality of Whistler policy. However, he said there was a lot to be gained by making those issues priorities.

The first priority for Whistler is to improve its relationship with local First Nations. While there is a lot happening on that area, Harcourt said that Whistler still lags behind the communities of Powell River and Osoyoos in terms of economic development and collaboration.

He would also like to see Whistler achieve zero waste. Currently Whistler recycles about 37 per cent of waste, compared to Halifax where 67 per cent is diverted from the waste stream. Many countries in Europe are approaching zero waste, largely because of the lack of landfill options.

Whistler is in the process of creating a service to recycle construction waste, as well as creating a municipal compost system that would reside at the new municipal waste transfer station in the Callaghan.

Another area where Harcourt would like to see progress is in the wider adoption of grey water systems for homes.

“This is a growing issue in a lot of communities — even Vancouver with its mountains, and especially in Calgary which gets its waters from glaciers in the Rockies. When those glaciers are gone in 20 years, the Bow River will become the Bow Creek, and Calgary will have to make a lot of hard decisions,” said Harcourt.

One solution is to increase the amount of untreated water used in businesses and households — only one per cent of all water used is used for drinking water — following an example set in Europe where people are starting to install separate water systems for drinking and other uses.

As a final piece of advice, Harcourt encouraged Whistler to share its experiences with the world. “There is more you have to do, but I invite you to really stretch yourself and become known as the community that got there first and became sustainable first,” he said. “The whole world would want to come to Whistler to find out how you did it.”

The next sustainability speaker is still being determined, and the presentation will likely happen in September. Several more speakers will follow through the winter months.

The Sustainability Speaker Series is presented by the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment and Tourism Whistler, with the support of local businesses.

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