By Michel Beaudry
“It takes a village to raise a child.” This old African dictum has been so oft-repeated in recent years that it’s become nearly meaningless. So let’s consider its apposite corollary: “It takes a child to raise a village.” Know what I mean? Let me put it this way: I believe that it is in the lives of Whistler-born kids like Claire Daniels that we can begin to discern what this mountain village — the every-day Whistler community of mums and dads and kids and dogs and mortgages and dreams — really stands for.
Claire will turn 21 tomorrow. An exceptional young woman by any standard — a perennial Athlete of the Year, and winner of the Outstanding Student Award and Valedictorian for the Class of 2004 at Whistler Secondary — Claire is one of those positive-minded people who constantly manages to fill the space around her with fun and laughter. In many ways, she embodies all that is good and wholesome about what people like to call the “Whistler lifestyle”.
Above all else, however, she represents an incredibly promising future for this community — if we can convince Claire and her generation of young mountain-nurtured folk to stick around for a while.
“For me, growing up in Whistler really worked,” admits the U Vic student. “A small school, a tight social group (over a third of my graduating class of 42 had been together since Dandelion Daycare!) and a community of broad-minded adults willing to share their knowledge with us — it really suited my temperament.” A giggle escapes. “I remember going out for the school cross-country team only to realize that the team consisted of me, our teacher Mr. Titus (a world-class runner) and his two sons. I mean, you couldn’t get better coaching than that…”
When asked about her fondest memories, she doesn’t hesitate. “The first snowfall of the year, for sure — and all the kids scampering to school with their Krazy Karpets and the teachers having to really work hard to get us to go inside. The excitement and anticipation of that first snowstorm: that’s what I remember most.” She smiles at the memories. “It’s pretty amazing when I think back to those early years. We were the last group to go to school in the village.” Another giggle. “There were only 12 kids in my kindergarten class… and most of our parents were already friends. It was like being part of a great big family.”
In her 2004 Valedictory speech, Claire addressed some of the unique aspects of growing up in this valley. “We have been among the fortunate ones,” she wrote. “For Whistler, as a place to grow up, has provided us with all the right conditions in which to learn and realize our potential. This nurturing environment has come from supportive families, dedicated teachers and school staff, enthusiastic coaches and community workers who have all given tirelessly and generously of themselves to guide us on our journey.”
One of those “dedicated teachers” who continues to give tirelessly, she tells me, is Mitch Sulkers. The founder of Whistler’s legendary Outdoor Recreational Leadership Program, Sulkers is the kind of teacher who understands how to fan the flame for learning smouldering in most teenagers’ hearts. “The program,” explains Claire, “comes at a time in high school — Grades 11 and 12 — when most kids are getting bored with the ‘Whistler Scene.’ What Mitch does is introduce them to a way of experiencing the outdoors that is both positive and incredibly inspiring.”
Claire knows of what she speaks. Keen to get involved with the program, she somehow convinced the school to let her take part during her Grade 10 year. By Grade 12, she was an ORL intern — “which means I was kind of an assistant,” she says, almost apologetically. She continues: “For most of us who grew up at Whistler, the mountains are like the extensions of our backyards. But when you take students into the backcountry — and put them in novel settings — it becomes a more challenging environment. And it requires people to step up and take different leadership roles. You get to learn so much in this program — communications, co-operation, teamwork, and of course all the basic backcountry skills, like how to use an avalanche transceiver and how to dig a snow pit and how to use climbing skins.”
The positive influence of Whistler educators like Sulkers and Titus has certainly served Claire well in the intervening years. “People are often critical of the schools at Whistler,” says Kashi Richardson, Claire’s mum. “But I can say without any hesitation that Claire was well prepared for university when she left for Victoria. It’s tough when you only have a base of 300 students. But I think the teachers do an outstanding job.”
Claire is spending the winter at Whistler this year. Midway through her third year of university studies — “I’m majoring in geography and environmental studies,” she says — she’s decided to take a little time off and “live the Whistler dream” for a while. “I went straight from high school to university,” she explains. “So even though I’ve grown up here, I’ve never spent a full winter on the mountain.” Like most kids her age here, she’s holding down two jobs, one at Lululemon and the other at Il Caminetto, but that doesn’t seem to phase her one bit.
“Living at Whistler has always been about the mountains for me,” she explains. “And I plan to spend as much time enjoying them this winter as I possibly can. I love Victoria and I love the outdoor lifestyle it offers. But I really missed the snow these last two winters. So I decided to work really hard at my studies last summer in order to take some time off now. The fact that the snow is so good this winter makes it even better…”
But things have changed at Whistler since she left for school. And Claire is quickly realizing that not all the changes are positive ones. “I don’t know if I wasn’t paying as much attention before,” she says, “or if my time in Victoria helped me to put things in perspective better. But I suddenly realized this summer that Whistler has been transformed into a ‘shopping mall’ resort.” She stops speaking for a moment. Tries to find just the right words. “I don’t know how to put it any better. In the last five years, Whistler has become a mini West Van.”
And that’s a transformation that she’s not totally comfortable with. “It kind of snuck up on me,” she says. “I can appreciate that it makes the local economy more sustainable — because we’re not so dependent on snow — but it also attracts a kind of tourist that doesn’t really appreciate what I feel is important about the Whistler experience. I mean, are these really the tourists that Whistler should be catering to? And if so what are the consequences? In the end, it makes me want to defend my town more. I don’t want people to think we’re all spoiled rich kids who take what we have here for granted. Because we aren’t and we don’t.”
She takes a breath before continuing. “My parents didn’t come to Whistler to get rich. And neither did the parents of most of my friends. They came here because they loved the mountains. We grew up surrounded by people who, for the most part, had made significant sacrifices to live here. And that really rubbed off on us. We were rough-and-ready mountain kids. We weren’t all that concerned with fashion and labels and following the latest trends.”
From her perspective, Whistler is trying way too hard to be all things to all people now. “When you start trying to cater to such a large group, you end up satisfying no one,” she explains. “Everybody has a mediocre time. Instead we should be focusing more on deciding what kind of tourist we’d like to have at Whistler. And then we should do everything we can to make that person feel good about coming here.”
She laughs. “Walking through the village is still a shock for me,” she confides. “ I find it hard to relate to all the dolled-up people in their fur coats with dozens of shopping bags in hand who haven’t even ventured off of the cobblestones of the Village Stroll.” And then she delivers her coup-de-grace. “I still don’t get it. Why come to a world-class mountain resort if you have no desire to experience the mountains?”