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The Barbarians at the Gate

By May 30, 2010 No Comments

“Often overlooked is that though the barbarians of ancient times were not cultivated, in almost every case they had fastened upon one or more technical innovations that enabled them to defeat the superior civilizations they then were able to sack. The Huns and the Scythians had revolutionary tactics, the Parthians their fleeting shots, the Mongols their special bows and their techniques of mobility. Even Hannibal, not quite a barbarian expect perhaps in the Roman view, and ultimately unsuccessful, had his elephants.”

Mark Helprin, Digital Barbarism, A Writer’s Manifesto (Harper, 2009)

A “red plate” prejudice runs rampant around in Fernie. A feeling that the influx of Albertans damages our core values and the lifestyle of Fernie. The Albertans are thought of as the barbarians at the gate. An invasion we must defend against at all costs.

Let’s look at that for a minute. Or rather, let’s take a deeper look at Fernie and the effect of an influx of new blood on the existing civil and social structure.

Take the city council. The make up is divided equally between long-term residents and newbie’s—three and three–with the mayor, Cindy, adding one more vote on the long-term side. The previous six years, the make of the council was similar except the previous mayor, Randal, fell on the newbie side.

Look at new businesses we already take for granted. Start with Big Bang Bagels. Two years ago, Carolyn operated in the morning corners of Just Pizza. Moving into the former Cappuccino Corner on Victoria in the heart of the historic downtown Big Bang ramps into the stratosphere. In nine short months, Big Bang developed a huge following, gathered the three top business awards at the Chamber of Commerce annual dinner and expanded successfully to the mountain. Shortly after the new store opened, the line-ups stretched out the door on Saturdays and Sundays. In the waiting hordes, locals stood only a sprinkling with the vast bulk of customers being visiting red platers. On the hill, the customer base developed into the season pass crowd. A mix of mountain employees, local families, Non-Stoppers and Calgary folks, all skiing with a pass. A mix that values and savors fresh locally baked bagels with flavorful oddball sandwich options.

Look at the current Fernie trend of remodeling rather than building from scratch. It’s a matter of economics—not much is being built to sell and there is added value created in upgrading an existing property. When you look at the families remodeling homes, a large percentage are red platers. Folks from Calgary who appreciate Fernie and decided to make a commitment to live and play here.

When you look at the ‘play’ in Fernie, the influx becomes really interesting. A recent study shows the average second homeowner spends in excess of 60 days in Fernie over the course of a year. That’s just under a fifth of the year. And that’s the average—there are some that spend a week and some that spend months. A substantial percentage of these homeowners plan on moving to Fernie in the future.

People complain that houses cost too much, but look at what we get. Incredible views. A trail system with 10’s of kilometers of trails spreading out from town, most of the close-in trails maintained with no user fee by the city. Unparalleled fishing lies literally at our doorstep. An abiding awareness of the tenuous place we hold in the valley and the needs of the wildlife we might displace leads to programs like Bear Aware dramatically reducing contact between residents and bears and thus almost completely eliminating of the need to kill “problem bears”. (Many would say it was the people that are the problem, not the bears. There are arguments for both sides. Shooting “problem people” is a practice we have moved beyond in modern society.) For the most part, the non-resident second homeowner shares the same values as those that live here. That’s why they chose Fernie to repeatedly visit, to buy into and to bring their friends.

In the early days of snowboarding, only a few resorts allowed boards on the lifts. Boarders were looked at as crass, impolite, and even dangerous on the ski hill. One of the first areas welcoming boards was Mount Baker, just over the US border in Washington State. When you talk to Duncan Howat, the long time manager of Mount Baker about those early days and how they dealt with boarders, he explains it was a matter of culture. Most skiers come to the sport from a skiing family or with skiing friends. Most early boarders came to the sport out of skateboarding, the park rat culture. The two couldn’t be more different. One is understated. The other is overstated.

Duncan recognized this anomaly and created same awareness in his employees. The ski area initiated an employee program to educate the newbie boarders to the ethos and ethics in the culture of skiing. If an employee saw someone doing something contrary to the established way—say jumping off a blind lip—they explained to the boarder the problem and rather than just say “No”, offer an alternative site or place that was safe. The ski area effort was not about stopping behavior, rather the effort channeled the behavior into accepted norms.

On a Friday night late this winter, a friend was driving down from Calgary for a weekend in Fernie. Slowing to 70 in a whiteout driving the winding section of road in Crowsnest Pass, she ambled along in the long line of slow moving cars. Looking behind, she saw a car pull out and start to pass the seemingly endless line of red plate cars aimed at Fernie. There was a double yellow line. Dark. Blowing snow. Minimal visibility. As the Yukon XL passed, she recognized the license plate. The red Alberta plate belonged to her ex-husband. And, at that same moment, she realized her two kids were in the car with him. She was fine ambling along knowing she had Fernie at the end of the line. Who knows what he was thinking, taking that risk with their two kids in the car and a potential nightmare ahead.

These two stories illustrate the answer to the barbarians at tout gate. They have no greater technology. They have no greater society than ours. Rather, what they seek is our society. They seek to share in our life. A life with a different pace, a settled and balanced manner of walking through the day.

What remains is a matter of education. We must educate and eliminate the habits that run counter to our ways. We stop for pedestrians wanting to cross the street—where ever. We don’t pass on blind corners. We take the time to greet and talk to people on the street. It may take half an hour to get to the bank and back, but that’s ok. And we’re willing to wait a little longer for something special, like a Banger on Saturday morning.

So let’s open the gate, but extract a toll for all who desire passage. Let’s require a change of habit from the barbarians. An acceptance of the ethos and ethic of a Fernie life.

They’ll never know what hit them.

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