Public response against WEF 

To WEF or not to WEF.

That is the question that local business owner Van Powell would have liked to have been asked long before the municipality took steps to officially invite the five-day World Economic Forum to host its annual general meeting in Whistler.

While it was no secret that the municipality was considering hosting the WEF, which is comprised of 1,000 of the world’s top corporations, nobody was sure where we were in the negotiations until council finally discussed it in public it at a contentious March 4 meeting. After lengthy debate, council decided to delay the vote until its April 2 meeting, and in the meantime to collect input from the community. Some councillors indicated they could not support the WEF without more public input.

The municipality received an unspecified number of responses to a notice regarding the WEF in local newspapers last week, "from residents, from second home owners, from a few businesses… the majority of which were negative," said Resort Municipality of Whistler information officer Diana Waltmann. The responses will be included in the April 3 council package.

Powell, who owns and operates Mind-Body Fitness, started a petition against the WEF of his own last week with an advertisement in the same paper. The response has been overwhelming.

"I took in almost 450 names on a petition yesterday to municipal hall, and I know we’re over that now," said Powell on Wednesday. "I wouldn’t doubt we’re 100 names over that and there’s still some time to go. It’s been pretty consistent that folks are unhappy with this proposal."

According to Powell, the most common reasons people gave for opposing the WEF were concern about how well the forum would fit into Whistler, the economic impact on businesses and the community, and dissatisfaction with the whole process.

"They’re concerned with the process this went through to get so far, they’re concerned that so many of the conversations took place in back rooms before it was debated before the public for the first time – and the fact that at that very fist council debate they tried to move for the proposal to be accepted," Powell said.

"They felt there hadn’t been adequate consultation on an issue the mayor himself said would probably be one of the most important decisions ever made here. The feeling is that if this was truly the case, the public should have been consulted much more on it."

There was a phone survey, but according to Powell it was misleading in that it did not specifically mention the WEF.

Most of the secrecy stems from the WEF’s own request to keep the discussions confidential.

The economic concern stems from the fact that the WEF takes place in late January, which is peak season for a number of Whistler businesses.

In terms of fitting in, Powell says many respondents felt that this kind of event does not make sense in a resort town that has its roots in recreation.

"I had to do my own homework after the meeting on March 4th, and I think a lot of people need the same information," he said. "Everything I’ve read about this meeting is that it comes with a lot of baggage, all the security measures and demonstrations. If that was the case here, whether it was held in January or August, I would have to look at it carefully before I gave it my support."

If the public were in favour of the WEF, Powell said he would likely support it, too. "As long as the process is different next time. As long as discussions are not taking place in back rooms, as long as the public is involved and their opinions are being heard, then I’m fine with the process. It didn’t happen this time, and it should have happened.

"I don’t think it should have gotten as far as it did without public consultation."

Three thousand delegates attended this year’s WEF meeting in New York City. Whistler has the hotel capacity to handle that size of conference.

Whistler was first considered as a potential staging site for the WEF a year ago when Klaus Schwab, the Swiss founder of the WEF, visited Whistler and pitched the idea to Mayor Hugh O’Reilly, Tourism Whistler CEO Suzanne Denbak, Senior VP of Operations for Whistler-Blackcomb Doug Forseth, and David Roberts, the general manager of the Chateau Whistler.

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