Features & Images » Feature Story

microcosm

comment
Whistler’s got it all Resort town reflects global trends of the late 20th century By Stephen Vogler Whistler’s got it all! No, no. I’m not talking about champagne powder, the highest vertical drop of any ski resort in the galaxy, a quaint pedestrian village with a vibrant metropolitan nightlife, the number one rating for nine years running in every ski magazine except the ones that don’t matter, etc. ad nauseam. No. I’ll save that spiel for the brochures. What I mean is, Whistler is a kind of microcosm of the world at large. The forces and trends that play themselves out across the country and around the globe tend to play themselves out right here in our own backyard. They rush up our narrow valley, concentrated like an acid rain droplet from the Woodfibre pulp mill. They sit, drenched with meaning, like a clump of moss on the flooded shore of Green Lake. But just what are those world forces manifesting themselves in our valley? To best understand them, we need to scroll back a few decades and look at what movements were afoot in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Hippy Sell-out The times they were a changin’ back in the ’60s and ’70s, all over the world and right here in Whistler. The back to the land movement was big. In Whistler, it just happened to have more to do with skiing and hangin’ by the lake than farming and eating home-grown lentils, but it was the same idea: get back to the land. Then around 1975 somebody noticed that the land they were getting back to was soon to be worth a fortune, and well, sure all those ideals about collectives and free love and stuff were great, but so is a whole shit-load of money. When the wonderful notion of Real Estate took hold of the baby boomer imagination there was really no question of turning back. It was time to get to work, to start seriously acquiring not only land, houses and condos but every toy and exotic holiday experience imaginable. While the ’80s were characterized in North America as the greediest, every man and woman for themselves, decade in history, Whistler was no exception. In fact, like usual, it was a perfect, if somewhat magnified reflection of the baby boomer slide from groovy ideals to hard core materialism. Squatting was out and slum lording was in: "I worked hard to get my piece of the rock, so you little punks better pay up your over-priced rent!" But although the baby boomers didn’t live up to their ideals in the middle years of their lives, we still have high hopes for them in their retirement. If in fact they do retire, they will not only free up the strangle-hold they have on the (real) job market, but there’s a good chance they’ll put their considerable energy into some form of philanthropy, giving back some of that which they’ve taken from society. Classism Whistler has the super wealthy living side by side with the poor. Okay, the wealthy aren’t always living here, but their multi-million dollar mansions sit empty right next to work-a-day lifties and all manner of service industry workers who cram themselves into overcrowded suites and scrape to pay the rent and pay off their snowboards from last winter. If that seems like a purely Whistler phenomenon, take a look around the country and the world. The gap between the rich and the poor across Canada and the world has widened, with the richest 10 per cent of Canadians now owning 51.3 per cent of all wealth. (In 1973 that top 10 per cent earned 21 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. In 1996, they earned 314 times as much). It’s a world-wide trend that may have something to do with the great triumph of capitalism over communism in the 1980s. Whistler just proves to be an exceptionally good show room for spotlighting the growing discrepancy in distribution of wealth. The Arts Whistler has an arts community that is barely alive and often diminishing in size as artists try to find somewhere less expensive to live and ply their trade. Whistler’s arts scene is characterized by hotel lobby art galleries and a penchant for paintings done by former Hollywood actors. The mundane and flat two-dimensional pieces by such renowned artists as Red Skelton, Tony Curtis and Anthony Quinn are perpetually on display. Our town leaders were so enamoured with these works that they established a Tony Curtis Day in the municipality. But don’t think Whistler is alone in undervaluing its artists and pursuing art to the dead ends of Hollywood stardom. The best-seller lists are full of autobiographies by famous movie stars. In the ’90s, celebrity not only sells, it provides a license to become a writer of children’s literature, a water colour painter or a sculptor, and demand a high price for your work. Disneyfication is rampant around the world as the entertainment corporation sucks in culture from all corners of the globe and spits it back out as a homogenized product palatable for mass consumption. While Disney hasn’t bought Whistler yet, the resort has learned much from its approach to entertainment over the last decade. Corporatization Fifty-one of the 100 largest economies in the world today are corporations. That’s right, corporations, not countries. The last two decades have been characterized by corporate mergers and hostile takeovers that have concentrated huge amounts of wealth and power in the hands of a few transnational corporations (TNCs). Downsizing, restructuring and cheap third world labour are just a few of the catch-phrases that have put millions of people out of work while increasing corporate profits and CEO’s salaries. The days of national governments calling the shots are virtually gone as TNCs use their powerful lobbies to influence government policies and create international free trade agreements enabling them to move money, products and labour around the globe as though national borders didn’t exist. The final nail in the coffin of Western democracy could be the currently dormant Multilateral Agreement on Investment. This agreement, which the corporate lobby has so far unsuccessfully tried to implement through the OECD, would give corporations even greater influence over all levels of governments, including areas of environmental and labour regulations. Meanwhile, in Whistler, the once family-run Whistler Mountain was merged in 1998 with Intrawest, owner of Blackcomb and one of the largest resort development conglomerates in the world. While one hand of the corporation reaches out into the world, buying up resorts in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, the other digs deeper into the local economy of its flagship resort, Whistler, B.C., where it owns the lion’s share of accommodation, retail outlets and remaining development rights. As the single largest employer in the municipality, Intrawest has effectively turned Whistler into a modern-day company town. But corporatization in Whistler isn’t limited to the owners of the mountains. The municipal government has been entertaining the idea of taking on corporate sponsors to help bolster the town coffers when development dollars dry up. Apparently nothing more than a few well-placed corporate logos: "And would you like fries with that development permit?" The schools have also been courted by corporations looking to enhance brand name recognition among the young. Cook books were given out to students of Myrtle Philip school this year put out by Kraft Corporation of Canada, with other sponsors including Sears Canada Inc., Noranda, and CIBC Wood Gundy. Surprisingly, almost all the recipes called for processed cheese singles. Environment While awareness of environmental issues exploded in the public consciousness with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, making headway has proven to be a long hard battle due to the aforementioned global corporatization. Likewise in Whistler, much of the community places the environment at the top of its priority list. Trying to protect that environment, however, has been a long and often losing battle with the onslaught of road building, condominium developments and sprawling golf courses accompanied by their side kick and raison d’être: high-end residential real estate. Southern Canada has lost approximately 70 per cent of its wetlands to development; Whistler has lost over 60 per cent. Canada’s East Coast fishery is virtually dried up and the West Coast is following dangerously on its heels. At home, Alta Lake was once a renowned trout fishing lake. Today, efforts are fortunately being made to restore damaged breeding habitat so that a healthy population of trout can once again thrive in the valley’s lakes. Perhaps the biggest and most insidious environmental problem facing the world today is global warming caused by greenhouse gases. Noticed anything funny going on with the weather lately? While hurricanes, droughts and floods make sensational news stories, they also leave a trail of devastation, uprooting communities and causing widespread suffering. Most scientists who aren’t employed by the oil or auto industries believe our erratic weather is a product of global warming and point to the automobile as one of the biggest contributors of CO2 in the atmosphere. Whistler, once known for its clear mountain air, now has its own automobile congestion problems. It seems that stuffing 40,000 people into the valley on a Saturday, many of them arriving by car, can have detrimental effects on our air quality. It is predicted that global warming could have a huge impact on the earth’s natural systems. Climate change could ultimately force us to make some drastic changes in the way that we live on the earth. And in Whistler, if all those wood stoves and automobiles cause our own microcosmic warming trend, we could be in for some big changes too.

Add a comment