May 28, 2017 Features & Images » Feature Story

Working-class kids 

(are gonna be all right)

  • Story and photos by tobias c. van veen


It isn't easy to make it work in Whistler. Sure, there is plenty of work to be had. Search the backpages of Pique, and often you will see plenty of minimum-wage jobs that pay just enough for shelter and food — if you throw down at least 40 hours a week. But housing is hard to find; there is more work than there are beds for the working-class kids. Those who do find a place to sleep are often assisted by employers; and those who stay often need to work more than one full-time job, if they are to actually enjoy the natural pleasures that Whistler has to offer. Whistler's minimum working wage hasn't risen much, if at all, in 10 years, with many wages hovering around $10 or $11 dollars an hour. Meanwhile, lettuce has hit three bucks a head and rents have skyrocketed. You do the math. Being a working-class kid is hard to add up.

This is their story — them working class kids of the service industry — told in part through pictures, and gathered through impromptu interviews, of what is but a small slice of the Whistler experience. This is admittedly a narrow window into the contemporary conditions of the working class, insofar as it is middle on the class scale, and remains irredeemably bourgeois. I admit to missing here so many types of low-end labour: fast-food joints, the dirty work of construction, household nannies and child minders, the remaining lifties, diggers digging out the bike park, late-night hotel staff, and the armies of cleaners who keep things pristine behind-the-scenes. And so much more: every job is imaginable here, in keeping well-oiled the Whistler machine that presents itself to the public.

Escaping Them Shoprats

Following along with his parents, Samuel Daoust fled Ottawa some six years ago at the age of 15, and has been working at Escape Route for the past four. "I thought Escape Route was a really cool shop that carried a lot of fun things," he says. "The best part of working here is probably the pro deals, and being around people who are in the mountains." Escape Route has long been a mainstay for locals and visitors alike, as one of the village's original, locally owned businesses. The downsides to working at a shop like this? "You end up with a lot of gear," says Sam. "You figure out how many years of living off of ramen noodles are needed to afford that new backpack." Plus... (some of) the customers. "You have to be a people person," chuckles Sam. "Because you will have people who are just not having a good day, and you're the guy standing in front of them, and they will just let you have it." Patience is a virtue in earning Escape Route's pay.

Gregory McChesney is a newer recruit in the shoprat ranks, having shifted from the now-defunct Skiis and Biikes to Escape Route for his second season as a boot and ski tech. Before Whistler, Greg was living in Ireland, and studying at Cardiff University in Wales, where he finished a degree in English Literature and Spanish while working in student media. "I got the responsible stuff out of the way," he says, "and then threw my hands up and said, let's go!" He is now interested in returning to print journalism — so this newspaper can probably expect his resumé soon enough. Greg felt his way around all things feet as his family business was a shoemaker's; this translated well to bootfitting. Escape Route trained him as a ski tech in the fine art of drilling bindings. "The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know," he says. "It's easy to get cocky... I'm very early in the game. There's still a million and one things to learn." Cracking a smile, Greg says: "I'm happy about that fact, because there's no use in knowing everything about one thing as then you can't have fun with it anymore." He has yet to mis-drill a pair (save for his first — which luckily were demos).

How does shoprat pay work out in this town? Yes, you can survive, says Greg, "but you can't live comfortably and save money at the same time." Greg recounts one shoprat who worked full-time, starting at 8 a.m., while schlepping late nights at Garf's as a bouncer. Working "doubles" — 60 to 80 hours a week — is common. "The two main reasons people are leaving here, is either that they don't find a house, or they work themselves into the ground just trying to afford to live here." Finding housing is the hardest thing, "by a million miles for sure," he says. Jobs are more plentiful than housing — and Greg points out that with Whistler Blackcomb's $345 million Renaissance-project, unless there is more housing, employers will be coming up short.

Sticky Working Students

House painting is one way to avoid the slow madness of retail. No endless stream of customers to satisfy — just a single set of clients whose pride and joy needs a new coat. No pressure there. But watching paint dry is a slow process. The mind withers along with the weather, which if far from the maddening crowds can be just as insanity-inducing, covered in the sticky residues of spattered paint.

Carefully perched atop a ladder, and applying a coat of grey to a classic winter A-frame, is Charlie Powis. Charlie tells me he has been in Whistler for eleven years. Hailing from Cheltenham, England, he now calls Whistler home, having graduated from Whistler Secondary School in 2016 just this year. "I don't mind painting," he says. Before joining Student Works, "I painted just a few things for my parents, but not professionally." For Charlie, painting is a means of saving for a future in the city. Charlie is going to Vancouver Film School in September to join his older brother in the field. Painting pay is a couple of bucks more than the standard rates, close to industrial wages, and requires full-time commitment, says Charlie.

Down below Charlie, spattered in grey paint from hand to foot, is Whistler local Janluca Jansen, who applies a thick coat with a fat roller. He explains his name is a half-German, half-Italian mutation. A friend of his started up Student Works, and Janluca followed. A few years out of high school, Janluca took business courses at Langara College, but has yet to find his passion. "I like putting on music, and getting lost," says Janluca, of his time spent with the brush. Though one must be courteous and professional to customers, "it's not like you're working at a front desk, or something," he says.

Newbies in Nesters

Nesters Market is known for hiring local high schoolers, and uptraining them as cashiers and stockers. Caitlin Doraty and Hailey MacDonald, both in Grade 11, are training their first day at Nesters, memorizing all them codes for vegetables and fruits. "There's like six different types of apples," says Hailey. "If they're organic, they start with a nine." The banana code is 4011.

Both Caitlin and Hailey have worked previously at Earls, setting and hosting. Caitlin then worked at the Spag — insider slang for the Old Spaghetti Factory — while Hailey went to Purebread. Both are happy to be at Nesters — the market doesn't schedule shifts later than 9 p.m. on school nights. Plus, they don't have to deal with "creepy men."

In some restaurants, "people just get drunk," says Caitlin, "and (the) uniform is a pencil skirt."

"Plus we started at a young age," says Hailey. Caitlin chimes in: "we both started at 15. It's quite rough." Plus, the late nights, with shifts going late until 1 a.m.

A beefsteak tomato comes onto the belt. I turn and find a local stockboy, who is stoically unpacking boxes in the frozen foods section. Severin Nielsen, also in Grade 11, has been working at Nesters for almost a year. He has quite a few friends who work in the market. "No complaints," he says. "There's always something to do, so you're not super bored, and there isn't always a manager breathing down your back. You can run on autopilot — find something to do and just do it." The cons? "For me personally, just being indoors," says Severin. "I grew up in Whistler." Being stuck indoors aside, Nesters appears to offer young employees some autonomy in an atmosphere respectful of their studies. Not bad for a first job.

Pushing Pastries and Pulling Shots at Purebread

Hannah Bell is a shift supervisor at the village location of Purebread. She hopped the pond from Australia back in 2016. Over the next six months, she'll decide whether she will apply for permanent residency. Hannah started front of house, and then Purebread trained her in baking. "The bakers here start at 5:45 a.m.," she says. "But there's three bakeries here in Whistler." One for breads, one for cakes, and the village spot for pastries and savouries. The benefits are evident enough: delectable delicacies and cutting-edge coffee. Plus, Purebread has two staff houses, which they set-up at the end of last year. It's important, says Hannah, "for getting people to stay." Food, coffee, and housing makes Purebread an attractive employer.

Rachel Hewland has been pulling shots of crema for a month. What brought her to work at Purebread? "The cakes," she says, "and it's one of the only coffee shops in the village to have a manual machine." (For the record, a La Marzocco — plus they produce a traditional macchiato in the correct-sized cup; ditto with the cappucino). Rachel perfected years of her espresso skillset at a micro-roaster in Queenstown, New Zealand, so she knows all about beans, grinds, tamps, and the effects of elevation on the pull.

Why did she come to Whistler? "I paid off my student loan, and then saw an ad for Whistler," she says. "Then I was here on a Monday!" Rachel is considering a career in alternative medicine, and is hoping to stay, at least for the summer, to see a bear or two.

Slicing and Dicing at Samurai Sushi

Standing in the back of the busy kitchen of Samurai Sushi — at the Nesters location — Yamato Miyano fixes me with a big smile. He's been here one year, and is shift supervisor. It's his second time living in Whistler. Hailing from Geiku, Japan, he likes it here. "It's a special place," says Yamato, "because of the mountains." He also likes the Japanese community that intersects the half a dozen sushi joints. There is a sense of expatriate camaraderie. "Some restaurants just make money, it's different here," says Yamato. "When we hire, of course we think of skill, but we also think of good character. It's similar to teamwork sports, like basketball or hockey."

Why Samurai, though? "There's good communication, and a good kitchen," he says. Samurai is "very local." Plus, they can experiment with rolls in a way that traditionalists in Japan tend to eschew (if not abhor). "For us, it's very exciting" to add tempura bits and create new rolls. "It's freestyle," says Yamato, "same as the mountain. One can make new rules."

The team is busy at work around me, but can barely contain a few smiles as I sneak around the crowded and busy kitchen snapping shots of the samurais at work.

Recycling All the Things

Gabber is pounding from the stereo at the Nesters Recycling Depot — a fast, hardcore techno genre that complements the industrial noise of hundreds of bottles and cans crashing into the crusher. The depot itself is being rebuilt, says local manager Sam Lotzkar, with a new facility in the coming months, complete with an indoor sorting centre and backside access for Carney's trucks.

In the meantime, the Depot is one of the more down-and-dirty spots to make a wage in Whistler. With her green hair flowing out from underneath a black toque, Stacey Mathews is "cleaning up and organizing" while bustling around the yard, hauling bags. She started at the depot after being let loose from her previous job ("It was classic, I called in sick on New Year's Day," she says). The depot started her on the spot. Within a few months, they bumped her pay above minimum wage, and she's lost a few winter pounds. She digs it, even with the wasps, stickiness, and smelliness.

Hailing from Saskatoon, skateboarder, photographer, and budgie owner Stacey came to Whistler "because it's not flat." That, and her interests in environmental activism. It's her fourth season. As we keep talking, I realize I've run into her before: Stacey is known for her handmade jewelry crafted from crystals. Why is she really working at the depot? To fund her own business.

Crafting All the Crystals

Stacey handcrafts her jewelry in her home studio, which is in a vintage Creekside abode well known to generations of ski bums. As we talk, Patches the budgie — a.k.a. Houlihan — preens and chatters throughout. Stacey picked up experience with all things from the inner Earth after working at Rocks and Gems and The Oracle, though she has been "fiddling" with jewelry since she arrived in Whistler. This year, she will have a table at the Pemberton Farmers' Market for her Lovestones line. The Lovestones brand contains a "mishmash" of symbols: triangles, crescent moons, mountains, trees, and the symbol for Om. It's tattooed on her arm.

Stacey also advocates for the quiet power of crystals to affect the esoteric aspects of energy — and recommends an agate for my (perpetual) anxiety. Her jewelry is shaped out of wire and other found things, and sells from $30 to $50 dollars. We quickly do the math: if she can sell four to five items a day, it would be "equivalent to any job" she's held, but only requiring two-and-a-half hour's of maker's labour (though adding in all the rest — transport, delivery, sourcing — "evens it out").

"I need to tap into that tourist money, somehow," laughs Stacey, "it's right there, but I don't know how to —" (she makes a grasping motion). And this is the key: the moment where you know that, at least some of the working-class kids are gonna be all right. And Stacey is hardly a kid — at 28, she's nearly a decade older than some of this article's other subjects. She has a one-year certificate in makeup from Blanche MacDonald, and she still wants to go to art school at Emily Carr. But for now, she's got a plan, she's got imagination, and she's not afraid to do what it takes to see it through. And this is perhaps that secret magic for anyone who wants to stick it out in Whistler.

For more images, check out @fugitivephilo on Instagram and Flickr.

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