Whistler: Not for everyone? 

  • photo by mike crane / tourism whistler

I believe it was Joseph Stalin who said, "Food, like democracy, it's not for everyone." The same might be said for living in Whistler, if one wishes to get brutally truthful about the current state of life in Tiny Town as we close in on our end game of non-stop growth.

With occasional forays into the suburbs of insolvency, Whistler has ascribed an arc of nonstop growth since its stumbling beginnings in the early-mid 1960s. It is a unique Canadian success story: Tiny fishing resort, aspirational Olympic venue, localish ski hill, weekend retreat, near death, resurrection, growth, Olympics, growth, growth, growth.

Along the way it's attracted an interesting mix of entrepreneurs, developers, ski bums, fresh-faced seekers, adventurers, dreamers, scoundrels and, increasingly, retiring Lower Mainlanders giddy at cashing out of their comically inflated bungalows.

It has often been said one of the reasons the town has enjoyed a Type-A level of dynamism is because virtually everyone living here has chosen to live here. While this characteristic is becoming more diluted as Children of Whistler grow into adults who just can't seem to leave, it remains true. In addition to choosing to live here, everyone who has remained here has fought many battles — some personal, some public — to stick around; this isn't the easiest town in Canada to make a go of it, assuming by it you mean earning enough to live several steps removed from couch surfing and relying on the food bank.

And farsighted political leaders have taken bold steps to make the town more liveable for more people. The most noteworthy was grasping the importance of housing a sizable percentage of the workforce in town, as opposed to up and down the valley in Pemberton and Squamish, a model known as Colorado Resort Living. There was much rolling of eyes and shaking of heads when council of the day set a target of housing 75 per cent of the town's worker bees locally. Less so now that we're housing around 80 per cent.

But this model — with the notable exception of the neighbourhood formerly known as the Olympic Athletes' Village — was not a matter of welfare, subsidy or noblesse oblige. It was a paying, if arm-twisting, operation that didn't rely on laying out taxpayer dollars to build. While Whistler Housing Authority does maintain some subsidized units for those in corseted financial straights, the vast majority of WHA owner-occupied homes were fully paid for by the people owning them — and thereby contributing to the social infrastructure of the resort — and their rental housing is a money-maker that will fund further housing development.

Why is that important? It's important because it underscores the limits of the RMOW's role in fixing social problems. The muni doesn't fund low-income housing. It doesn't fund senior care. It doesn't fund daycare. It's not in the social-services business. These activities are viewed as either provincial responsibilities or are left to the private sector.

Why is that important? It's important because if you've picked up a local paper recently or wasted time on social media, you've been barraged by multiple stories of woe: many and varied housing crises, lack of senior services, no daycare to speak of, hunger, domestic violence. It would appear as though a plague of locusts may be just around the corner... and indeed, it may be if you consider the negative impacts of climate change a suitable stand-in for a plague of locusts.

The roots of all these ills lie in Whistler's addiction to growth. We're growth junkies; it's the monkey on our back. We've redefined our limits to growth so often — using the quaint metric of bed units — you may be justified in thinking there really is no limit. Whether it's the endlessly effective success of the Ministry of Festivals and Animation in crowding countless numbers of numb-looking weekend visitors into the Village, the Mothercorp's belief that there is no such thing as too many skiers, its straight-faced assertion that bringing an additional 100,000 visitors to splash in its proposed water park won't have any negative effects on crowding or traffic, or local businessfolk, riding a two-season wave of success by planning expansions and/or new shops and restaurants, the underlying ethic is one of perpetual growth.

And so we face a shortage of worker bees willing to accept a non-living wage, a glut of gridlock, a lack of parking, local accommodation disappearing down the gullet of Airbnb greed, and a chorus of people demanding the RMOW do more to house them, care for them in their dotage, mind their children so they can go to work for those non-living wages, and do something — anything! — about the damn traffic.

Well, while I don't want to be Tiny Town's Stalin, maybe Whistler isn't for you, dude. And I don't mean that in a dismissive way. Really, I don't.

No matter how much housing WHA builds, it'll never be enough nor will it be cheap enough if you're working a Whistler job, er, jobs. It might be if you've clawed your way into the middle-management ranks at WB, opened your own business and managed to keep it going for a couple of years, won the lottery or had parents farsighted enough to establish the trust fund you rely on. Even then, it won't be if you've decided to have a couple of kids, can't live without a $4,000 mountain bike, really need to go surfing in Costa Rica during the October rains, want to save for your retirement or have what many in the country consider middle-class aspirations.

And no matter how rich you are or how important you used to be, Whistler isn't the town in which you are going to age in place, if aging in place requires more intervention than the occasional home visit from a health professional. Assisted living and acute care are things that are only going to be available regionally, and you can read 'regionally' to mean Squamish.

Opening enough daycare spots to meet the town's demand is a virtual impossibility. The provincial regulations are stacked against it. We lack the physical location, we lack the trained staff — willing to work at the wages offered — and we lack the social infrastructure to do the grunt work to open that many spaces. Such is life when you live here and everyone that people have relied on in the past for familial support live somewhere else.

We've spent decades growing ourselves into these problems. It is folly to believe we're going to grow ourselves out of them. But growth continues to be Whistler's modus operandi and there doesn't seem to be any voice suggesting otherwise.

Having said that, we do, unlike Stalin's Soviet Union, have democracy of sorts. We can change that model if we're interested enough.


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