Hope for the best, prepare for the worst 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRADEN DUPOIS
  • photo by Braden Dupois

That headline about summed up Whistler, as we headed into this last May long weekend.

The resort was heading into the second year of a new festival, the Great Outdoors Festival (GO Fest)— at an investment of $255,000 — in the hopes of turning around the fortunes of the town on this notorious weekend.

But local council had also hired private security and the RCMP had beefed up its force in preparation for trouble, as it usually does.

As it turns out it wasn't enough, and we all know the headlines by now.

According to the RCMP, the weekend had fewer problems than in past years, but the escalation in the level of violence has left Whistler shocked and angry.

A 19-year-old man, Luka Gordic, was allegedly stabbed to death by three 17-year-olds. He died as his frantic parents were speeding up the Sea to Sky highway to his side after learning of the attack.

Of course, Whistler's No. 1 rated resort reputation meant that the story was not only picked up by the B.C. media it was soon being carried nationally as well.

It is hard to imagine what else Whistler can do to combat this ongoing problem — an issue that goes back more than 15 years.

The first stakeholder committees started being formed in 2004 with the RCMP, nightclubs, the municipality and the accommodation sector at the table. The same partners are still talking today.

In 2005, the level of violence prompted the municipality to take out ads in Lower Mainland newspapers and on radio to advertise "zero tolerance" for hooliganism at the resort. The RCMP and the municipality drew up a three-year operational plan to turn the May long weekend into a peaceful event.

After the May long weekend in 2006 the Respect Whistler Task Force was formed. Its 2007 report to council suggested organizing an event for the Victoria Day holiday in order to attract the guests that operators want.

In 2009 the Gang Task Force started coming to Whistler's May long weekend.

Committees of stakeholders continue to meet and the latest iteration of them, formed after another nasty Victoria Day weekend in 2013, helped come up with the idea for GO Fest (remember the festival idea was first floated in 2007).

As the weekend got underway RCMP were diligently stopping cars and confiscating booze from underage youths heading into town.

Hotels, for the most part, were charging higher rates than you would expect in the off-season, and the RCMP detachment had every officer out bolstered by a substantial number of officers from the Lower Mainland.

At one point in the evening pedestrians on the village stroll could have passed up to 14 officers as they walked through town.

For at least two weeks leading up to the weekend GO Fest was advertised widely in the Lower Mainland on news media sites offering up plenty of activities that would appeal to active young adults — the kind that flock here to enjoy Tough Mudder, for example — and there were family events too.

And by all accounts GO Fest was a great success. Tourism Whistler surveyed attendees, and so the community should have a better idea of who went to the events and why in the coming weeks.

But Whistler has spent years cultivating a personality that is about the "party." The town's stroll has several clubs on it and its reputation as a place to come and have fun is well deserved.

It may be an unpopular sentiment this week, but that reputation is also an important part of why Whistler is globally recognized. We are not a stodgy, boring town — we are a mountain resort with residents and visitors alike who thrive on adventure and pushing the limits. We have vibe.

That doesn't mean that we welcome violence — Whistler doesn't in any way condone brute-force behaviour in any form. So the challenge is how to separate the two on the May long weekend?

Suggestions in the community include forming a community watch program, working with the clubs to close them down completely, or early, putting in surveillance video as a deterrent, putting in curfews for those under a certain age, inviting other groups to host events here like firefighters, police forces or the armed forces, asking accommodation providers of all kinds to be even more vigilant in the push to continue not to rent to underage youth or even young adults as groups, and publicizing GO Fest, if we stick with it, earlier and more widely — that's most of them I think.

The answer probably lies in working on all of the above.

The reality is that the youths coming here to cause trouble are not drinking in the clubs (many are too young to get in). They are drinking and doing drugs in their rental accommodation. They mostly stay inside while the fun, family-oriented activities take place in the day and early evening, then come out late — some of them armed!

GO Fest is doing nothing to deter this particular type of visitor, except maybe making it slightly harder to get accommodation.

Maybe it is time to consider gating and the ticketing the village as is done at New Year's Eve, though that may not be the answer as the belligerent groups can go elsewhere, and maybe it is also time to embrace the headlines and tell victims' stories to the world as deterrent.

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