Opinion » Alta States

Cheeying Ho — sustaining the vision


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"The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them"

- Entrepreneurial Environmentalist Paul Hawken

She was a fan long before she moved to Whistler. Here was a community, she thought, that really walked its sustainability talk. The resident housing policy, the Whistler2020 vision, the valley trail network, the pedestrian-only village — these were far-reaching initiatives indeed. And she often used Whistler's story to inspire other towns and villages to get creative with their own community issues.

"I'd been watching Whistler for a long time," admits Cheeying Ho. "I was particularly impressed with the vision articulated in the Whistler2020 document. Compared to what was going on in the rest of B.C. — even the rest of Canada — this was a very progressive way of setting a path to the future."

Little did she know that she'd soon become the promoter of that very vision.

It was the spring of 2008. And Cheeying was living in Vancouver. As the executive director of Smart Growth BC — an NGO advancing sustainable land use and development inside the province — Ho had spent the last eight years working with and consulting communities, land developers and other interested parties throughout B.C. "I did a lot of public speaking during those years," she says. "And in those talks, I'd often use Whistler as a positive example of what can actually get done when you put your mind to it." She stops. Lets a beat go by. "You know, what the Whistler Housing Authority has accomplished in the last few years — that's huge! No one else has even come close."

She'd also met and worked with a number of Whistlerites over the years — among them Ken Melamed, Tim Wake, Shannon Gordon and Dan Wilson — and she'd been just as impressed with the people of Sea to Sky as she had been with the policies.

So when she was approached in May of that year and asked if she might be interested in running Whistler's latest initiative — the Centre For Sustainability — she took the offer very seriously. "I saw the job as an amazing opportunity. It was a very appealing prospect for me. Frankly, I was less interested in making an impact on Whistlerites as I was in sharing Whistler's lessons with other communities."

What she didn't realize was how long the hiring process would be. "It was a four month ordeal," she says. And laughs. "There were a number of interviews — even a personality survey — it was quite interesting." But when the dust had cleared and the hiring committee had made its final cuts, only one person remained. "I was offered the executive director job in the fall of 2008," says Cheeying. She lets a beat pass. "By December I was living in Whistler."

That was almost five years ago. So has her opinion of the Whistler community changed since then? She doesn't answer right away. "Not really," she says, finally. "As far as the centre goes, I won't say it's been an easy journey or anything. But I've got a great staff and a strong board and we're definitely moving forward. Still..."

Hold that thought. We'll come back to it.

Cheeying Ho was born in the bustling, cosmopolitan port city of Hong Kong. But her time there was short-lived. "My family moved to Canada when I was four years old," she begins. "I grew up in the Lower Mainland... in Langley and White Rock to be precise. Got my undergrad degree at UBC."

The world was a big place. And Cheeying was obviously curious. Still, her decision to move to Africa and teach in Botswana was a radical move... by anybody's standards. "I taught there for nearly three years," she tells me. It was difficult, frustrating, exciting, scary, satisfying, enchanting, daunting, overwhelming... in short it was everything she'd hoped it would be.

It also speaks volumes about the woman herself. For Cheeying is nothing if not practical. Sure, she can handle ideas and concepts with the best of policy wonks. But fundamentally, she's a doer; she doesn't mind getting her hands dirty. But I digress.

Her next stop was Ontario. "I taught high school math and science and also at Algonquin College in the tech and trade school," she recounts. She also managed to complete a Master's degree in education at the University of Ottawa. More importantly, it was in Ontario that she fell in love with skiing.

"I'd skied a bit as a teenager," she says. "But nothing like this. My partner (at the time) and I even started our own ski club at the high school where we were teaching in Guelph." She smiles at the memory. "It was a lot of fun, you know. We travelled to Killington and Mont Tremblant and the various southern Ontario ski hills."

But she was still a long way from the mountains. "The west is my 'here,'" she explains. "I'd ended up in Guelph to follow my partner. But it was never home. So when that relationship ended, well, it just felt natural to move back to Vancouver."

It was around 1993, she adds, that she first came into contact with backcountry skiing. "I don't remember how it all came about." She laughs. "But I ended up renting touring gear and skiing up to Elfin Lakes." More laughter. "An overnight trip on my first ski tour — Oh my God! I had no idea. By the end of the first day, I had second-degree blisters! They were sooooo deep... the first layer of skin was totally gone."

I suspect that Cheeying comes from the "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" school of life. For what would have defeated most skiing neophytes simply made the activity more attractive to her. And she proceeded to build up her backcountry skiing skills with the zeal of a true believer.

Meanwhile, she'd moved from teaching in the schoolroom to teaching in the real world. "Working in the non-profit sector," she explains, "is not for everyone. But it works for me. In general, the non-profit value system fits very well with my own values. And the challenges... well, you have to be very resilient to keep a non-profit going. It's like running a small business: creativity, patience, innovation, drive — these are all required if you really want to make the thing work."

Given her growing passion for skiing and her impressive accomplishments in the non-profit sector (particularly in the expanding world of environmental education), Cheeying was obviously a sound choice as the founding executive director for Whistler's new Centre for Sustainability.

But for the woman herself, it was a dream-come-true. "I had to pinch myself every day to make sure it was really happening," she confesses. "I mean, it was amazing! You could already feel the pre-Games buzz. You could feel the excitement in the air..." She pauses. Takes a long breath. "And that got us thinking — how could we leverage the Olympic attention on Whistler to promote the centre to the world?"

Things don't always turn out the way you want them to. And Cheeying learned that the hard way during the Games. "We thought we had the perfect program," she says. "We'd organized this little Ted-X talk during the two-week Olympic run. We even had (National Geographic writer) Wade Davis there as a speaker." She sighs. "We thought it would be so interesting. But we barely got a response from media." That was a profound lesson, she adds. "Never count on using other people's event to promote your own cause..."

But the lessons were just beginning for Cheeying and her team. "I was still super stoked," she maintains. "I had a great team. Great ideas. And the fact that one of the centre's main role was to manage and promote the Whistler2020 Vision — well, that was supremely important to me. Especially since part of our mandate was to share our story with other interested communities."

The WCS team quickly got to work, devising a working strategy to further engage the community on 2020 principles. "You know, stuff like how do you make the restaurant sector 'stronger'... things like that. We had a whole new program in place." She sighs. "We were ready to go."

Then came the election of 2011, and the elimination of many Whistler2020 supporters — among them former mayor Ken Melamed. By the time the new council had addressed all the financial issues occasioned by the worldwide money crash, they found the community no longer had the shekels for what many residents in the valley thought (and still think) was an unnecessary luxury. Funding for Whistler2020 dropped precipitously.

And yet the centre endures. Cheeying and her team of indomitables continue to break new ground. And while they're still keepers of the Whistler2020 Vision — and have a small contract from the RMOW to monitor and report on its progress — they've expanded their marketing efforts to include a lot of outside business. "Our annual budget is roughly $500,000," says Ho. "And less than a fifth of that is Whistler-based. Our biggest clients in 2013 include the city of Fernie (B.C.), the city of Lacombe (Alberta) and the city of Faro (Yukon)."

Stay tuned... I'll be writing more on Cheeying Ho and the WCS in the coming weeks.