Photo by Flickr user junnn

Written by Sebastian Leck

Janey Harper loves the natural beauty of Whistler — the scenic mountains, lakes and evergreen forests surrounding it — but worries that constantly expanding ski resorts could put it at risk.

She retired to Whistler 16 months ago and says there’s a group of retirees like her who are concerned about the future of Whistler’s natural environment. “We’re living in nature, and that’s pretty darn special. We want to preserve that,” she said.

Although much of Whistler’s natural environment remains untouched, development of the area has led to some loss of diversity. Seventy per cent of the wetlands that originally covered Whistler’s valley bottom have been lost and 26 species were red-listed in 2016, meaning they are endangered, threatened or candidates for that designation.

Most of Harper’s information on Whistler’s environmental issues came from the town’s local newspaper, so she wanted to learn more about what was happening on the ground. That’s why she attended the Community Foundation of Whistler’s first Vital Café, an offshoot of their Vital Signs program.

Each month, a group of Whistler locals hash out an issue inspired by one of the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So far, they’ve debated ecological thinking, poverty in Whistler, climate change and the benefits of collective learning.

Harper attended the Jan. 22 session at the Whistler Museum called “Thinking Like a Mountain.” The title was inspired by a piece written by the conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac in 1949, which described the consequences of eliminating wolves in a mountain ecosystem.

The rapid expansion of the resort season in Whistler — and the resulting flood of tourists — were major topics of discussion. Close to 3.5 million visitors came to Whistler in 2016-17, which was a new record high. “There was concern that the resort part of this community needs to be held accountable, and in check, so we don’t lose what we really value,” Harper said.

The United Nations SDGs are global and somewhat abstract, so the Foundation hopes to bring them down to earth for the Whistler community. “We’re looking at climate change and poverty and big issues that make people feel powerless,” said Carol Coffey, the executive director of the Community Foundation of Whistler (CFOW). “We want people to understand that as an individual you do have power.”

“Thinking like a Mountain” relates to several UN goals, like creating sustainable cities and communities and sustainable consumption, while the second — named “Yes, there is Poverty in Whistler” — is based on the UN goal of ending poverty in all of its forms. The sessions start with experts providing insight into a topic, and then branch out into discussion between the participants.

The Foundation’s Vital Signs project is meant to inform Whistler residents about problems facing their community and, more importantly, what they can do about them. Coffey says the foundation asks attendees three questions at each session: their personal experiences related to the topic, how the topic relates to their community and what actions they can take.

“People like to talk about what the government should do but we also want to encourage people to think about they can do as an individual,” Coffey said. At the session on poverty, for example, participants realized they could mentor young people, share skills at workshops and create healthy work environments to prevent employees from feeling isolated.

Coffey hopes that the events foster a sense of belonging in Whistler. Their 2018 Vital Signs report that while the town has a vibrant local community, newcomers can struggle to form close relationships. About a fifth of the people surveyed (19 per cent) had a weak or very weak connection to the town. The transient population in Whistler likely plays a role, as ski enthusiasts often come and leave the town in a matter of months.

“We have a population of about 11,000 people. Yet at any given time, there are over 35,000 people in Whistler,” said Coffey. “All these visitors have a tremendous impact on the local community and the full-time residents of Whistler.”

The Vital Cafés are small — 15 people at most — to allow for an intimate and open conversation. The CFOW plans to continue holding the sessions on a monthly basis.

Janey Harper said the discussion she attended was “like a family reunion where you got caught up with people and found out what was really going on.” She liked that there was no beating around the bush. “You get right down to business. That’s pretty powerful.”

The Vital Cafés are held monthly at the Whistler museum. Visit for dates and more information on upcoming events.