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Whistler offers qualified invitation to WEF

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Whistler will invite the World Economic Forum to hold its annual meeting here, on Whistler’s terms.

Whether the WEF accepts those terms remains to be seen.

The main condition of the invitation is that the meeting be held in late spring or fall, rather than January, the time when the World Economic Forum has always held its annual meeting.

The conditional invitation came after nearly two months of often heated public debate, including a three and a half hour special meeting of council Monday which attracted about 150 people to Millennium Place.

Nearly 40 people spoke Monday, some making passionate, persuasive arguments for and against the WEF coming to Whistler. The speakers included business owners, long-time residents, part-time residents, young people, ski instructors and people with young families.

Among the issues were security, the forum’s impact on businesses, what business Whistler is in, the structure of the WEF, and what hosting the annual meeting could do for the Olympic bid and future business for the resort.

One of the fundamental concerns was the process by which the community was consulted and the decision to invite the WEF was made. Following Monday’s meeting Van Powel, who helped organize a petition against the WEF meeting, was involved in putting up a Web site about the WEF and took out newspaper ads regarding the forum, seemed satisfied with the compromise.

"You saw what happened here: The community came out and spoke. And we changed things. We changed the democratic process here in Whistler.

"It was exciting and it was wonderful," Powel said. "The level of debate was inspiring."

There wasn’t a public process until the March 4 council meeting, when Whistler councillors publicly discussed the forum for the first time. At that meeting council decided, after some acrimonious debate, to delay making a decision in order to allow time for public input.

Since then the local papers have been inundated with letters to the editor regarding the World Economic Forum. More than 1,300 people signed a petition opposing the meeting, and a coalition of businesses began a counter campaign in support of bringing the meeting to Whistler.

Councillor Ken Melamed said the process has been convoluted but there has been a process because the people of Whistler forced one.

Speaking at the council meeting Monday, Powel began by saying, "Nothing I have to say matters. And nothing (Chateau Whistler general manager) Dave Roberts or (Tourism Whistler president) Suzanne Denbak have to say matters. What matters is the 1,300 names on this petition."

Powel told council the people of Whistler are not apathetic, they want to be consulted – but that’s only half the equation. Council accepting the petition is the other half of the equation.

He said the issue was not about the WEF but about the democratic process.

"This is not a negative issue for the community," Powel said. "I think the community is stronger… because of what’s happened the last month and a half. Thirteen-hundred people took the time to tell you what they think. That matters."

Garry Watson, who followed Powel at Monday’s meeting, said he offered qualified support for hosting the World Economic Forum, provided security concerns could be met.

"The most important aspect is we are all part of the world community," Watson said. "We have no right to stifle that debate… as long as we are secure in our community. We can’t give in to the tree-spiker mentality."

Speaking with emotion about the four Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan last week, Watson said they paid the ultimate price.

"What that price is is the sole question before council," he said.

Brian Buchholz, who leads Remembrance Day services in Whistler, said his reasons for opposing the conference had to do with his daughter. Referring to the Pacific North West Economic Region conference in Whistler last summer, which attracted protesters and RCMP wearing camouflage and carrying automatic weapons, Buchholz said he came to Whistler for certain reasons.

"We can’t crawl under a rock, but I don’t want to expose my family to this," he said.

That sentiment, that Whistler is not a place for confrontations over global issues, which could spill over into violence, was repeated by several speakers. Kirby Brown said it is "that fantasy, that escape from downtown that makes this place special. It’s the twinkle in the snow, not the blood in the grass."

John Grills said riot police "scare the hell out of me," but he supported inviting the WEF.

"We’re starting to pick and chose who comes here. We haven’t done that before." Referring to speakers who said they oppose the WEF because it is made up of 1,000 of the world’s top corporations, Grills said: "We’re saying the corporate elite can’t come. That’s not why we built this place."

Eckhard Zeidler suggested the only way to know what will happen is to host the WEF once.

"We’ve grown up enough to have the debate," Zeidler said. As for concerns about Whistler’s image being tarnished by television images of barbed wire and riot police, Zeidler said: "We don’t have the information unless we host this conference."

Gord McKeever said one of his main reasons for supporting the WEF was because to reject it may compromise senior governments’ support for the 2010 Olympic bid.

"Jean Chretien is near retirement and he’s looking for his place in history," McKeever said. "Chretien can afford to say ‘forget about Vancouver in 2010, Toronto will get the (summer) Games in 2012. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that if Toronto gets the 2012 Games Vancouver and Whistler will get the Winter Olympics for decades."

The pro-WEF arguments were countered by some people who had ethical concerns about the corporations that belong to the forum. "Is the WEF what you want to be promoting on a global level? Is it really what we stand for?" asked one speaker.

A woman who identified herself only as Marie, 22, noted there were a lot of business owners and people of a certain age supporting the WEF, but said the WEF is not going to do anything for young people.

"I would like to make my living here, but it’s difficult. The distance between the rich and poor is growing. The WEF wouldn’t do anything for the social glue of Whistler," she said.

After the final speaker Mayor Hugh O’Reilly commented that the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting is "all about dialogue" and that the forum should be supported where ever they have their meeting.

Melamed, although he ultimately supported the qualified invitation, echoed some speakers’ concerns that there is a trend toward elitism and gentrification in the resort, which he found disturbing. He suggested the issue can be dealt with in the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan now being drafted.