A freelance writer and author of several alleged humour books, Andrew Fleming lives in Vancouver, B.C. with his wife and faithful dog. His work has in appeared in such disparate places as Vice, the National Post, the National Observer, Cracked and Adbusters. Andrew enjoys candlelit walks on the beach, being praised for his writing, and talking about himself in the third person.
Whistler Mountain is set to open ahead of schedule November 17, and meteorologists are predicting an epic powder season. Although ticket prices continue to skyrocket and the current mayor is openly hostile to visitors who don’t also want to spend their money on wildly overpriced restaurants and hotels, the B.C. ski town still holds a special place in a lot of people’s hearts.
It’s arguably the best alpine resort on the planet but it’s worth keeping in mind that to a huge chunk of the world’s population, the word “Whistler” is apt to mean something else entirely.
10. Whistler’s Mother
Art lovers might think of American painter James McNeill Whistler, or more likely his 1871 masterpiece “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” better known as Whistler’s Mother. The iconic oil-on-canvas painting, currently on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, of his elderly ma sitting in a chair has become so entrenched in popular culture that – like the Mona Lisa, American Gothic or Edvard Munch’s The Scream – it’s often referenced and parodied.
A quick Google search turns up images of Mrs. Whistler as Minnie Mouse, a ninja turtle, a jedi knight and even Paris Hilton. The painting has also shown up on a U.S. postal stamp during the Great Depression, several episodes of The Simpsons and even played a starring role in a Mr Bean movie.
9. The Whistler
West Africans who like to keep up with current events would probably first think of The Whistler newspaper. Based in the capital city of Abuja, “Nigeria’s finest news source” boasts an impressive 71,000 Facebook likes and is a go-to source of breaking information in the former British colony best known for being a major exporter of oil, Islamic extremism and unsolicited emails from cash-strapped princes.
8. Abraham Whistler
Comic book nerds are likely to associate the word with a Marvel character devoted to hunting vampires. Whistler first appeared in the 1998 film Blade and was played by crusty country singer Kris Kristofferson. Random fun fact: His rarely mentioned first name is a nod to Abraham “Bram” Stoker, creator of the novel Dracula and its stake-wielding hero Abraham Van Helsing.
Blade’s cantankerous sidekick isn’t the only fictional Whistler known to tangle with the undead. Fans of Joss Whedon’s cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be familiar with yet another Whistler (this one played by Max Perlich), an enigmatic demon fond of fedoras tasked by the Powers to create an equal balance of good and evil in the world.
6. The Whistler
Connoisseurs of early crime dramas and/or antique podcasts may recall The Whistler, an American radio series broadcasted from 1942 to 1955 now available online. A mysterious character known only as the Whistler, who also happened to favor fedoras, was the narrator of more than 600 tales of criminals typically undone by their own stupidity. The Whistler, who was played by multiple actors over the years, was later adapted into a several films and a TV series.
Some may recall a more recent series called Whistler, a two-season CTV drama that debuted in 2006 set in Whistler, B.C. although most of the first season’s scenes were actually shot in Langley. The slopeside soap focused on the relationships between three families following the mysterious death of a local blond-haired, blue-eyed snowboarder who won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. CTV was promptly sued by Ross Rebagliati, an actual local blond-haired, blue-eyed snowboarder who won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, for having “misappropriated his character.” The suit was settled out-of-court for an undisclosed amount.
4. Whistler/The Whistler
Whistler was the name of a minor gangster in Season 1 of the gritty biker drama Sons of Anarchy, a show that also featured a lot of songs by alt country artist White Buffalo, including the atmospheric track “The Whistler” during the scene when (spoiler alert!) Hellboy gets his gang tattoos covered up after being booted out the club.
3. The Whistler
Lovers of flute-flavored prog rock will perhaps recall “The Whistler,” the second single from Jethro Tull’s 1977 album Songs From the Woods. The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album charts while the song itself peaked at 59.
Followers of the U.K. indie music scene in the late nineties and early aughts may recall a trio (former EMF guitarist Ian Dench, singer Kerry Shaw and violinist James Topham) named Whistler who released two albums on the Wiiija label, including their self-titled debut in 1999 recorded on Pete Townshend’s famous barge studio moored on the River Thames.
Last and certainly not least, others may immediately think of Hoary marmots (Marmota caligata), whose distinctive shriek of alarm earned them the nickname whistlers and whose healthy numbers in the Coast Range caused the former London Mountain to be renamed as the much more marketable Whistler Mountain in 1965.
There’s no shortage of B.C. hockey players who have come up big on the world stage.
Goaltender Carey Price of the Ulkatcho First Nation earned his 14th consecutive win after backstopping Team Canada to a 2-1 victory over Team Europe in last month’s World Cup of Hockey final. “Burnaby Joe” Sakic wore the red maple leaf at seven different international tournaments, including leading the team to its first gold medal in 50 years at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Shea Weber of Sicamous has patrolled the blue line for his home country seven times so far and won gold at six of them.
But one name that rarely comes up in discussions of the best British Columbian to appear on international ice is that of Glen Foll, who laced up his skates for no less than 80 games.
If you’ve never heard of him, it’s probably because he played for Australia.
Foll first began his hockey career playing in North Surrey Minor Hockey Association midget league. He went on to play for the Surrey Saints and later in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, bouncing around between a number of teams including the Vancouver Bluehawks, the Langley Eagles and the New Westminster Royals. But, like a lot of young Canadians do, he had the urge to go walkabout in his early twenties.
“It was either buying an RV and travelling around the U.S. with some buddies or go to Australia on holiday,” Foll, 54, said over the phone last week while back in town visiting family. “But then someone told me that they played hockey down there as well and so I asked the ice hockey federation for more information. They ended up sending me an overseas player form, which helped fast-track my work permit, which was a lot easier to get in those days, and I ended up playing on a team in the premier league.”
The 5’10” defenceman soon established himself as one of the top players with the Macquarie Bears (now known as the Sydney Bears) during his debut season Down Under and stayed with the team for several years while still returning to North America to play in the off-season.
But after being cut after a two-game tryout for the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Hockey League, he returned to Oz for good. Foll became the league’s leading scorer in the 1988-89 season, which coincided with his first appearance playing for the Australian national team, known as the Mighty Roos, in an International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship Group C tournament held at home in Sydney.
“I think it was probably the biggest crowds of any tournament I’ve played in, and lots of people came out to all the games, not just ours.”
The Roos lost all seven games but Foll was hooked. He went on to play in a total of 16 IIHF tourneys, ending his international playing career with a total of 22 goals, 46 points and one bronze medal after the Roos defeated Hungary 8-1 in the C division in 1992. Foll also holds the record for captaining the most world championships of any player with a total of 12 after first donning the C in 1990.
For most Australians, “hockey” means the far more popular sport of field hockey, where the national men’s team is currently ranked number one and the women’s team is in fourth place. (For comparison, the Canadian men’s field hockey team is ranked 12th place and the women 18th.) Anyone who has visited Whistler in recent years can attest that Australians have an affinity for winter sports, yet so far ice hockey has yet to catch on the same way as skiing or snowboarding has.
“It is a sport that is catching on but there aren’t a lot of arenas, and that dictates how much the sport can grow,” said Foll. “In Adelaide, the city where I live now, we only have one arena and this is a city of 1.2 million people. Nationwide, competing with public skating and then figure skating is our biggest competitors for ice time. In our arena, it’s broomball that is the big one.”
Foll said the sport is nonetheless making strides and pointed to the example of forward Nathan Walker, 22, a third round draft pick by the Washington Capitals in 2014 currently playing for their Hershey Bears AHL affiliate.
“He is the only true Australian who grew up playing hockey here to be drafted,” said Foll. “He wasn’t actually born in Australia, he was born in Wales but moved here when he was one-year-old or something.”
Oddly enough, while Foll has played the most games for Team Australia, the player with the most points also once skated on Surrey ice. Current Adelaide Adrenaline captain Greg Oddy, 36, of the eight-team Australian Ice Hockey League was briefly a member of the Surrey Eagles in his Junior A days. The 6″1′ centreman went on to earn 135 points as a member of the Mighty Roos over 14 years, donning their green and yellow jersey for the last time in 2012 playing in the IIHF Group B division, where the Aussies once again came in last place.
The Roos are currently ranked 36th, two places ahead of arch-rivals New Zealand and 35 spots behind Canada.
Although Foll never got to play for his adopted country at the Olympic level, he at least once got to see his homeland win gold on home ice. Foll, who now runs a sports store specializing in ice hockey gear and is frequently in Canada to pick up new equipment, was back in town for the 2010 Winter Games.
“My brother-in-law is the editor of a newspaper in Adelaide, and he was able to set me up as a correspondent,” said Foll, who remains active with the sport as both a coach and referee. “It was pretty amazing to be able to see so many of the big games. I was really lucky.”
While the press box may be as close as a captain of Team Australia ever gets to a Winter Olympics gold medal game, there’s always the chance if broomball somehow becomes an Olympic sport.
The first rule of freelance writing is never turn down a gig. The second rule of freelance writing is also never turn down a gig. Chuck Palahniuk would no doubt agree. It may be a cliche but it’s still good advice since you never know when the next one will come along. So when the editor of The Growler asked if I’d be interested in writing a comic strip about an anthropomorphic can of mediocre beer, I said sure.
It’s not easy being an office worker in Vancouver.
For starters, the average salary doesn’t come close to reflecting the insanely high cost of living here, which is mostly due to the B.C. government having allowed the city’s housing stock to be used as a vast money laundering scheme for wealthy Mainland Chinese in exchange for juicy kickbacksdonations from real estate developers.
Slaving away in front of a computer doesn’t seem so bad in other Canadian cities because it’s what pays the mortgage. In Vancouver, it’s more likely to barely cover your tiny apartment’s astronomical rent until your seemingly inevitable renoviction.
But at least the city is beautiful, right?
Arguably this only makes it worse.
It’s one thing to go in to work day after day knowing you don’t have a hope in hell of ever being able to afford a home here. Being constantly hit with stunning views of ocean sunsets and snow-capped mountains simply rubs it in.
My last job in a ground-floor, mostly windowless newsroom was perfect. Unfortunately, the owners decided to renovate a derelict building several blocks away and move us there instead, and my new desk came with a view of the North Shore’s Crown Mountain peeking above the building next door.
The view didn’t distract for long, however, as I was laid off a few months later, quite possibly because the owners went way over their renovation budget and chose to sacrifice some minions. (It could also be because I spent too much time staring out the window at mountains.) After several months of unemployment living in North America’s least affordable city, I finally found myself a new gig, and my cubicle comes complete with a terrific view of the city’s iconic twin peaks known as the Lions.
The mountains have played a big role in the history of the city. They inspired the name of a major bridge, a pro football team and an Oscar-winning film studio. They’re the reason B.C.’s annual film and TV awards are called the Leos and, unsurprisingly given this is Vancouver, there’s also a couple of high-end condo towers named after them as well.
Members of the Squamish Nation know them as Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn, which translates as “Twin Sisters,” and the mountains are considered a sacred reminder of an ancient peace treaty brokered with another tribe. The story goes the city’s original inhabitants were preparing for a huge potlatch to celebrate their Chief’s twin teenage daughters entering adulthood, and the two girls begged their father to invite the Haida, a northern tribe the Squamish were at war with, to the party. Dad was dubious about asking sworn enemies to stop by for a social visit but he reluctantly agreed. As it turned out, the party ended up being a roaring success, and the two tribes chose to bury the proverbial hatchet. Then, as indigenous author Pauline Johnson explains in her 1911 book Legends of Vancouver, things took a surprise turn when the Sagalie Tyee (Great Spirit) showed up:
And so, after several weeks of the Lions hovering beyond my computer screen, I figured it was high time I dragged my ass up there. The easiest access is via Lions Bay (natch), a mansion-filled seaside village with prohibitive parking regulations to discourage Vancouver riffraff from visiting. It’s roughly a four-hour slog up the Binkert Trail to reach the 1,600-metre plateau near the base of the West Lion, where hikers are rewarded with stunning panoramic views of Howe Sound, the Sunshine Coast, Capilano Watershed and surrounding mountains.
Not to mention of my new office.
The photo above is now my work computer’s desktop image and a constant reminder that, while it may be crazy to choose to live in a city where the real estate market is a rigged game, it is even crazier to live here and not take advantage of the surrounding wilderness. Even if it’s only on weekends.
There’s probably no other book in history that has inspired as many lazy headlines as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. A quick Google search reveals the 19th century classic has been riffed on for tales comparing everything from airlines and auto shops to zombies and zoos. But, given that the two cities in question were London and Paris, it still seems somehow apropos to use it when comparing the best ski town in Canada with the best in Quebec, a province where après ski is taken literally and “vert” is the colour for beginner runs rather than shorthand for vertical drop.
While Whistler Blackcomb is routinely rated as one of the best resorts in the world, over in La Belle Province, the top spot is — with apologies to Mont-Sainte-Anne and Le Massif — generally considered to be Mont Tremblant.
Located in the Laurentian Mountains an hour-and -a-half drive north of Montreal past several smaller ski hills, it has been voted the best ski resort in Eastern North America by the readers of Ski Magazine for 18 out of the past 19 years in a veritable epitome of the French expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Other recent accolades include being named one of the top 10 family-friendly ski hills in North America by Condé Nast Traveler and one of the top 25 overall globally by National Geographic.
Nearly a century after Dickens wrote his tale set during the French Revolution, the title of a different novel came to define the relationship between the English and French here in Canada. Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes became an instant symbol of the longstanding divide between Anglos and Francos when it was published in 1945.
Before heading east for a visit, I decided to reach out to someone who not only has extensive experience riding at both resorts but also happens to be a bit of an authority on the Canadian identity.
In his recent autobiography, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes learning to ski with his family at Tremblant before, as a teenager, crossing the floor to snowboarding after watching the James Bond film A View To A Kill, in which 007 (actually stunt double Tom Sims) wrenches a ski from an incapacitated snowmobile and proceeds to use it as a makeshift snowboard to elude machine-gun-wielding bad guys.
Trudeau eventually went on to teach snowboarding at Whistler in his 20s before returning home and following his father’s footsteps into politics. Unfortunately, he was unable to find the time for a quick phone interview or reply to emailed questions about his time spent at either resort. He’s probably a busy guy, but it means we may never know the answers to such important questions as, for example, if fond memories of shredding pow in Whistler’s out-of-bounds Khyber Pass area played a part in his decision to choose a Montreal restaurant with the same name for a first date with eventual wife Sophie Grégoire.
But in any case, it’s not as if the new PM has left enough of a mark at either place to earn a trail named in his honour. Unlike his famous papa.
After an infamous episode in Parliament in the early `70s when former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau allegedly mouthed the words “fuck off” to a political opponent and later claimed he instead said “fuddle duddle,” Tremblant’s owners renamed a run for the gaffe. Fuddle Duddle, located halfway down the north side of the hill near the top of the Expo Chair, is an intermediate blue run rather than one of the black diamonds that make up half of 95 overall trails, which seems fitting given the language in question was likely blue as well.
“Quebeckers thought it was pretty funny and, since Monsieur Trudeau was a fairly regular visitor to the mountain back in those days, the people in charge must have thought it was a great idea,” says André LaChapelle, a semi-retired computer technician who has skied at Tremblant for nearly half a century. “I’m sure he got a bit of a kick out of it every time he skied down it.”
André LaChapelle has skied with three different prime ministers at Tremblant. Photo: Alan Wechsler
He says he has seen a lot a famous faces at the mountain over the years, including fellow PMs Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, and that locals take a certain pride in leaving them alone.
“People all look pretty much the same when they are all wearing helmets and goggles and all their other gear, but nobody here wants to make a fuss anyway. There’s no paparazzi or anything like that. We see Michael Douglas, who owns a house nearby, and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) up here it seems like every other weekend and he just skis around like everyone else.”
While celebrities are also a frequent sight around Whistler and a few such as Seal, Sarah McLachlan and the guy with the tongue from Kiss have even bought homes in the area, this is still a fairly recent phenomenon. In Tremblant, being a vacation milieu for the rich and famous goes back several generations. Members of the Kennedy clan were frequent visitors and movie star Henry Fonda is said to have had at least one of his five honeymoons in town. Tremblant was also the setting for a popular novel in the `60s called Chateau Bon Vivant about an American couple who unexpectedly inherit a hotel. The somewhat saucy book was later sanitized, anglicized and turned into a Disney movie called Snowball Express, which inadvertently foreshadowed the French-Canadian community’s own eventual Disneyfication after being transformed from a sleepy ski town into a bustling four-season resort.
The first settlers to the area were members of the Algonquin First Nation, who sought refuge along the shores of Lac Tremblant from the war-like Iroquois. They were the first to form alliances with early French settlers and who gave the mountain its name. Mont Tremblant, or “Trembling Mountain,” comes from the Algonquin “Manitou-Ewitchi-Saga,” meaning the Mountain of the Dreaded Manitou, a supreme being who, when displeased by human behaviour, would cause the mountain to tremble with storms and falling boulders.
Coincidentally, trembling is also how inadequately dressed skiers and snowboarders will find themselves on terrain that regularly sees temperatures of minus 20 Celsius. Before the wind chill factor.
The first people credited with climbing the hill were three Americans: an expat businessman named Henry Wheeler, a millionaire entrepreneur named Joe Ryan and a journalist named Lowell Thomas, who is best remembered today for introducing the world to Lawrence of Arabia. In February of 1938, they were all staying at Gray Rocks, a small ski resort on nearby Lac Ouimet owned by Wheeler’s brother, and got to talking one night about how much they’d like to climb the much bigger hill on the horizon. The following day, they hopped into Ryan’s plane, flew over to Lac Tremblant and slapped sealskins on their skis before heading in waist-deep snow up a route that is now known as the Flying Mile.
Thomas described the day in the introduction to the 1954 book The Mont Tremblant Story.
“After a couple of hours we reached the summit, and found ourselves in a dazzling fairyland of rime ice and pine trees laden with snow,” Lowell wrote. “Joe Ryan, who had the soul of an Irish poet, was particularly impressed. Joe said, ‘In the years that I’ve spent roaming the world, I believe this is my most thrilling sight. But there is one thing wrong with the mountain. It’s too difficult to get up here. And I think I’ll fix that.'”
Ryan put his money where his mouth was, convincing the federal government to sell him the land surrounding the mountain and staking most of his fortune on following his dream. Exactly one year after Ryan first reached the summit, Mont Tremblant Lodge opened its doors to skiers with a 1,370-metre chairlift rising from the Versant Sud, or the south side of the mountain, with a total of eight runs.
Snow enthusiasts from big cities such as New York, Toronto, Chicago and Washington soon flocked to the town, mostly arriving via the P’tit Train du Nord, a milk run rail service from Montreal. Tremblant later became the first resort in North America to offer lifts on two sides of a mountain after another was added in 1946, and savvy skiers – and now snowboarders – follow the sunshine by beginning the day on the Versant Nord and making their last laps on either the Versant Sud or Versant Soleil.
(Although Ryan was an accomplished man of action, his sense of direction left something to be desired. The so-called south side of the mountain is actually its western flank while the north side mostly faces east.)
For many years the ski scene was literally nonpareil, but by the late 1980s, Tremblant was going downhill in a bad way. Aging lifts and grooming machinery were badly in need of upgrading and snowmaking equipment was in short supply. Intrawest Resorts Holding, Inc. at the time also the owners of Blackcomb Mountain (and later Whistler Mountain), took a chance on the fledgling resort and forked over $26 million to owner Louis Laporte for it. The man they sent out to oversee the hill’s renaissance was a 41-year old Whistler lifer named Roger McCarthy.
THE MCCARTHY ERA
“It was bankrupt when we bought it and the deal closed Sept. 1 of ’91 and it was rough trying to get things ready in time,” says McCarthy. “The vehicles’ tires were all down to the canvas, rodents and insects had taken over all the buildings, and there was no electricity because the power had been shut off. It was a scramble and that first winter was spent really evaluating ‘what do we have’ and ‘let’s put together a plan.'”
Tremblant’s new general manager also had to substantially upgrade his rusty high-school French. “It was terrible,” says McCarthy. “I had a French woman come and sit in my office two days a week. This, at a time where we were busy ripping buildings down and adding new ones and people are hammering on the door looking for me and I have to say, ‘sorry, I’m getting my French lessons!’ My first speech to the employees, I had my assistant put it all on a piece of paper and double-space it and I wrote out phonetically underneath what the words were.”
Intrawest eventually pumped roughly a quarter of a billion dollars into the facility and added five high-speed quad chairlifts, several new routes including a gladed area called the Edge, a much-needed terrain park, and an extensive snowmaking system to help offset the region’s icy conditions, as well as a couple of golf courses, a high-speed cabriolet in the village, a 1,000-seat restaurant at the summit and an indoor water park.
McCarthy says he takes particular pride in the look of the new village itself, a faux-European, pedestrian-only town packed with colourful, multi-storey buildings overlooking cobblestone streets. It looks a bit like a steeper version of Whistler Village, which isn’t surprising given that both were designed by landscape architect Eldon Beck.
They also moved some of the older buildings of the original base village — including the massive Chalet des Voyageurs lodge — downhill to create what is now called Vieux Tremblant to preserve some of the town’s heritage.
“I sort of felt like I was making an adjustment to a Stradivarius. We had the utmost respect for what was and wanted to maintain as much of that as we could. We really tried to put our arms around it and keep as much as we could because the history of skiing back there is so well-documented and preserved, unlike in Whistler.”
While Whistler and Tremblant share the same raison d’être as outdoorsy tourist traps, in many ways they remain quite distinct. Scale is an obvious one.
Pierre Bessette, a dapper, grey-haired gentleman who works as a liaison for Tourism Laurentians, says he only realized how much bigger Whistler really is after visiting on business.
“I’m there to try and convince people to come to mini-Whistler when they are already in Whistler,” he says with a chuckle. “But on the other hand there are many things that we have here that you won’t find in other places. We have things like a casino, a (Formula One) race track, an airport with direct flights to big cities and cross-country ski trails that are part of a national park.”
There are also no huge lineups at the gas pumps or gridlock as visitors drive back home after a day on the slopes. Or avalanche danger when off-piste. Or a Starbucks, at least for now. And way more options for poutine.
But the biggest difference when it comes to Quebec will always be the language. Resort workers are now mostly bilingual, although attracting English-speaking tourists is always a delicate matter in a province where the infamous Office Québécois de la Langue Française, commonly known as the Language Police, is ever vigilant when it comes to finding perceived abuses against Bill 101, which insists English words on signs or ads have to be less prominent than French ones.
Bessette instinctively lowered his voice when asked if this was a problem for attracting American tourists who could just as easily spend their money at nearby New England resorts such as Stowe, Killington or Jay Peak.
“They kind of leave us alone here because they see the value of tourism but it is still a sensitive subject,” says Bessette. “It is much better now than it used to be. To give you an example, back in the `80s I was about to give an interview with a TV station in Boston and the minister of tourism at the time called and insisted that I only answer questions in French. I tried to explain to her that they don’t speak French in Boston but she didn’t care. It did not go well.”
Many local businesses have adopted a laissez-faire attitude, including a nightclub venue with a sign near the dance floor stating, “No Men, No Drink in the Cage” followed by a simple “merci” in blatant disregard of provincial language laws.
Although it’s equally possible that French guys simply don’t need to be told that go-go dancing is a faux-pas.
But the exoticness of French is also a big part of the attraction for many people. Tom and Emma Grant, a 30-something couple from England I spoke with while riding the gondola, were making their second visit to the resort in five years.
“It really feels like skiing in a foreign country, which obviously it is, but more so because of the French thing,” says Emma. “It’s a bit like visiting the Alps, only people here are much friendlier and our money goes a lot further. Plus it’s a lot closer to home for us than the Rockies.”
I mentioned the title I had in mind for this article since they hailed from Dickens’ homeland, and Tom pointed out that the book’s famous opening line could easily apply to ski trips.
“The ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ pretty much sums it up,” he says. “It usually is the best of times until you hit a tree or break a leg or something like that and then suddenly it’s the worst of times.”
It goes without saying that most people head off to the hills with great expectations of having the former.
Vancouver is known around the world for its outrageous real estate prices and equally ridiculous liquor laws, so it seems somehow fitting that Canada’s third-largest city first began after a squatter decided to open an unlicensed saloon in the middle of nowhere.
Apart from the First Nations village of Xwayxway in what is now Stanley Park, the downtown peninsula was still virtually uninhabited in pre-Confederation days, save for a handful of shack-dwelling workers at Stamp’s Mill, a sawmill on the southern shore of Burrard Inlet that first opened in June 1867.
This changed soon after the arrival three months later of a chubby Yorkshireman by the name of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who showed up unexpectedly one day in a dugout canoe that also contained his aboriginal wife, mother-in-law, a couple of chickens, a dog and, most importantly, a giant cask of whiskey.
Deighton, like most new arrivals to the Pacific Northwest, was originally drawn here because there was gold in them there hills. When prospecting didn’t pan out as hoped, he became a riverboat captain on the Fraser and later the owner of the Globe Saloon in New Westminster, which was then the fast-growing colony of British Columbia’s capital city.
Deighton suffered from an undiagnosed health problem that caused painful swelling in his legs, and the story goes that he made the unwise decision of leaving the Globe in the care of a friend while he travelled to Harrison Hot Springs in search of a cure. Upon his return, he found most of his stock had been given away for free and opted to flee town in order to avoid creditors.
Starting fresh next to a sawmill – where workers were unable to procure an adult beverage – seemed as good a bet as any, and it didn’t hurt that there was yet another dry mill town, Moodyville, conveniently located just across the water.
After pulling ashore, Deighton announced he’d give free whiskey to anyone who would build him a new joint, and 24 hours later a ramshackle Globe Saloon version 2.0 opened its doors for thirsty customers near what is today Maple Tree Square.
The rest is history. Easy access to alcohol at the Globe soon attracted a rough and ready crowd from around the globe, many of them runaway sailors or criminals escaping the law. It wasn’t a pretty place – reeking of animal dung and skunk cabbage, and with streets ankle-deep in mud and spilled blood – but it eventually attracted a growing community known as “Gastown” in its colourful founder’s honour.
(It’s worth pointing out that Gassy Jack earned his nickname for his talkative and boastful nature rather than for gastro-intestinal reasons. Based on historical accounts, he comes across as a mix of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and a less murderous version of Al Swearengen, the owner of the Gem Saloon immortalized by Ian McShane in the HBO series Deadwood.)
The makeshift town eventually drew the government’s attention, and on March 1, 1870, Gastown was officially incorporated as the town of Granville, itself named in honour of a colonial secretary rather than a boozy gasbag. Gassy Jack purchased a plot of land on the corner of Carrall and Water Streets and built a two-storey hotel he called Deighton House, where he died four years later at the age of 44.
It’s unlikely Gassy Jack ever sold beer in either of his establishments given that he passed away shortly before breweries such as Columbia Brewery on nearby Powell Street, Cedar Cottage Brewery at Knight and Kingsway, and the Stanley Park Brewery first opened their doors.
But if ever there was an historic local figure worthy of having a new craft beer named in his honour, ideally whiskey-flavoured, surely it’s Gassy Jack Deighton.
People move to the Sea to Sky Corridor for a lot of different reasons. Easy access to one of the world’s best ski resorts is, of course, a big factor for many new residents, but for others it might be for career advancement, the stunning scenery, proximity to a major urban centre, to take advantage of the red-hot real estate market, and/or simply because it’s a great place to raise a family or retire.
Few people have come here because they are fleeing their home country due to a bloody civil war, but this is soon about to change as corridor communities prepare to welcome an unspecified number of Syrian refugees.
Nobody is sure when exactly they are going to show up. Or even where they are all going to stay.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has changed his campaign promise to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of the calendar year. Instead, the federal government will be shooting for 10,000 new arrivals by Dec. 31, with the remaining 15,000 to be settled by the end of February. Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, roughly 12 million people have been killed or displaced, more than half of the Middle Eastern country’s pre-war population.
Four hundred are expected to arrive in British Columbia in December.
“We’re still waiting for the details,” says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISSBC), adding the first wave of new arrivals will be split roughly half-and-half with government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees. “Two hundred are going to be government-assisted and coming mainly to the Vancouver area, while the other 200 we don’t really know yet which communities in B.C. they’ll end up in.”
The Lower Mainland cities of Burnaby, Surrey and Coquitlam, which all have robust and diverse immigrant communities, are expected to be the top choices for most of the new arrivals. Metro Vancouver has seen 3,346 Syrians settle there in the past five years, according to ISSBC. The process will see Syrians held first in temporary reception facilities before being transferred into the communities where they will live.
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says she hopes her town will end up being to home to some of them.
“When the word is out that, yes, Whistler is going to receive some families, there is an expectation that people might say ‘hey, I’ve got a house that I use two weeks at Christmas. It’s available,'” says Wilhelm-Morden. “We are a small but very caring community and have significant resources that I think we can offer.”
The Resort Municipality of Whistler is hosting a meeting beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 16 at the library for local residents to discuss how they might be able to lend a hand. The issue is a something of a personal priority for Wilhelm-Morden, who successfully introduced an emergency resolution at the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities meeting in September requesting immediate action from the then-Conservative federal government to increase aid to Syrian refugees.
“It is so cliché that this is a country full of opportunities and blah, blah, blah but it is true,” she says. “For those millions of people who are so desperate that they’d leave their homes, they’d leave their extended families, leave their jobs, they’ve put their children in dangerous circumstances to escape their country, it is just ridiculous for us not to welcome them in.”
However, not all residents share her enthusiasm for bringing Middle Eastern troubles to the Whistler bubble. While local resident Stu Wild supports Canada’s efforts to bring in refugees, he questions the role of the municipality in this process, as well as Whistler being the best place for a Syrian refugee.
“Does council know the true cost to bring a family to Whistler and support them?” asked Wild via Facebook on the Whistler Politico page. “This is not what you have been elected to do. Those on council that feel it is their pet project to adopt a family from the Middle East, perhaps they should open their wallets and personal homes first.”
The post prompted a heated debate with dozens of replies about the potential pros and cons of resettling refugees here, with many pointing to the town’s perennial housing problems.
Wilhelm-Morden acknowledged that finding permanent accommodation in Whistler can be difficult at the best of times, let alone during the beginning of ski season and shortly after 21 units were lost in a Nov. 10 fire at an Alpine Meadows residential complex.
“Certainly housing would be one of our biggest challenges, but I have had people contact me and tell me they’ve got room. The Alpine fire displaced a certain number of people that obviously have to find houses as well and that will be a challenge. On the other hand, Whistler has welcomed people from all over the world and there is no reason why we couldn’t welcome some Syrian families, if, for example, we had maybe five families here in Whistler and five more in Squamish.”
But while Whistler’s stock in trade is welcoming newcomers to town, they are normally well-heeled tourists or expats rather than shell-shocked survivors of a civil war.
Carole Stretch, an ESL teacher and faculty member with Capilano University’s Community Development and Outreach department, has spent the past eight years helping immigrants find their feet in the Sea to Sky region and so far has only seen two refugee families settle here.
“We have worked with two families who did not land in the corridor but moved up here because there were jobs,” says Stretch. “Both families had significant language requirements. They are struggling with the language and trying to earn a living and I would say one individual was actually, apart from the language, he was quite clear that he had goals for where he wanted to get to and was working hard to get there. The other family really has longstanding mental health issues and struggle to support themselves.”
Neither of the two families originally came from the Middle East, although Stretch said she is aware of some Syrian-Canadian families living in the area who resettled here as economic migrants.
Stretch, herself an immigrant who moved to Canada from the U.K. a decade ago, points out this won’t necessarily be the case with other refugee families and that the first wave of Syrians to arrive in Canada will likely be made up of those who had both the means and foresight to get out of the country during the early days of the war.
“A lot of these people, as I understand it, who have been identified to come over, were among the first refugees from the Syrian war,” says Stretch. “They have been in camps for maybe two to three years. We are not talking about the people you are seeing on the news right now.”
She pointed out that many refugees will be suffering from psychological trauma, something non-profit organizations in the area don’t currently have the resources to adequately address.
“Mental health support is going to be key,” says Stretch. “Refugees do have a hard time resettling. It is not a one-year thing, it is a multi-year thing, and support in their own language — particularly on the mental health front — is absolutely key.”
Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman says that while the town doesn’t have the infrastructure and wider support networks offered in the Lower Mainland, the tightly knit community nonetheless offers things immigrants might not find elsewhere.
“It may actually be much nicer for them to integrate into a very intimate community as opposed to a big city that can sometimes feel alienating,” says Heintzman. “We are so close to the city as well, so they can always get down if, for example, they are looking for a mosque. We also do have a small Muslim community in Squamish with a few families, so it’s not like there is nobody. Fundamentally, we would like to have a few families so that they’ll be there supporting each other, but I think that a small town like ours, or a small city like ours, can really create the support systems to help them adjust to Canadian life.”
She pointed out that it wouldn’t be the first time the community has welcomed refugees and that Squamish took in a number of the so-called “Boat People” from Vietnam and Cambodia who appeared on Canadian shores in the late 1970s. Heintzman added that families coming to Squamish will be coming through the Group of Five (G5) program, which are made up of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have arranged to sponsor a refugee and have agreed to provide emotional and financial support for a period of one year.
“Squamish has been pretty active for a while and I’ve been working with them a little bit,” says Heintzman. “I think there are three different groups that have organized into groups of five to support a family. They are accepting donations, fixing up accommodations, getting all that organized, making sure all the Ts are crossed and Is are dotted.”
While most people are still waiting and wondering when refugees may arrive, one Squamish resident decided to bring some aid directly to Syrians still languishing in makeshift camps in Germany. Adam Greenberg recently flew overseas with three suitcases full of stuffed animals and an envelope full of cash after finding himself moved at an emergency community meeting in October at the Squamish Adventure Centre, organized to address the refugee crisis.
“There were two kids there who had heard about the war and the refugees and how there were so many children amongst the refugees,” says Greenberg over the phone from Toronto shortly before boarding a plane. “These kids got up and said they could imagine how scared these kids must be and that when they are scared at night, they cuddle up with a stuffie. They heard these kids had left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and so they took it upon themselves to go door to door to collect stuffies for these kids. Of course, when you are a seven-or nine-year-old kid, you have no idea how complicated it is to send these toys overseas.”
Greenberg had accumulated plenty of Air Miles points through his job as vice-president of a software company and volunteered to personally deliver the donations after it emerged the mothers of one of the children has a personal connection to refugee camps in Germany.
Greenberg, who is Jewish, also handed over 5,000 euros as part of a grassroots fundraising campaign to help the Arab refugees.
“The lessons from World War II is that, not long ago, Jews were refugees and the same sort of things were being said about Jews. I’ve heard it all and now people are saying similar things about Muslims: ‘They are dangerous, they want to take over the world, we can’t have them here.’ I look back at the stuff I heard growing up and think, ‘sheesh, here we go again.’ When you see people in such a desperate state and you have the means to help, you should.”
Greenberg says he had no idea if any of the refugees he’ll meet will ever end up in Squamish but he would love to someday introduce any who arrive to one of his passions.
“I’m an avid snowboarder and I admit to imagining having a new friend to go snowboarding with.”
An Arab and a Jew going up a T-bar together may sound like the beginning of a bad joke but may not be as far-fetched as it sounds given that the Syrian-Israeli border is home to the only ski resort in the Middle East. Mount Hermon is 2,814 metres high and is the largest mountain in either country. The southern and western slopes were captured by Jewish forces during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the resort — which is only accessible via the Golan Heights — opened for business four years later.
However, in 2005 Syria announced plans to build a $15-billion ski resort on their own side of Mount Hermon, which biblical scholars believe to be the same mountain where Jesus underwent his Transfiguration. The project, to be developed by an unspecified group of Syrian, Kuwaiti and Saudi investors, was to include hotels, shopping centres and various other sports facilities reachable by cable car. It’s probably safe to say the project is now on hold indefinitely.
Arabs and Jews may not be skiing or snowboarding together in their ancestral homelands any time soon. But here in the Sea to Sky, it could just be another day on the mountain.