Lunch with Nancy Wilhelm-Morden

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden squatted, skied and settled high-profile lawsuits on her path to becoming Whistler's mayor.

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, Whistler of Mayor | BCBusiness
Even a five-year-old who sat next to the lifelong skier on a Blackcomb chairlift seemed to clock her elevated status: “You’re the mayor. You get to do whatever you want.”

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden squatted, skied and settled high-profile lawsuits on her path to becoming Whistler’s mayor.

Like many Whistlerites, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is an Ontario transplant. She spent four terms on the resort municipality’s council, establishing an excellent reputation for herself before landing the top job as Whistler’s first female mayor. And she’s not shy about why she’s in that chair.

“I stepped up to run because Whistler was in a bit of a mess. I saw it as getting a job done and getting out,” the long-time resident of the resort community says matter-of-factly at our lunch in Caramba restaurant near both her mayoral office and Race & Co. LLP, the law practice where she is a partner.

She balks, however, at how the position has folks acting differently toward her. “I’m shown deference because I’m mayor, and I wasn’t ready for that,” says Wilhelm-Morden, picking at a salad. “I just didn’t do this for ego reasons.” Even a five-year-old who sat next to the lifelong skier on Blackcomb chairlift seemed to clock her elevated status. “He grinned, and told me, ‘You’re the mayor. You get to do whatever you want,’” she recalls, smiling.

Maybe not quite anything she wants, but “doing” certainly seems high on Wilhelm-Morden’s agenda since victory a year ago. Within 24 hours of being sworn in, she called a meeting to cut her salary by $10,000 (to $77,000) and reverse part of the contentious paid-parking issue (lots four and five are now free, as all are after 5 p.m.). Freezing property taxes for a year soon followed.

Presumably this gung-ho approach was one of Wilhelm-Morden’s ace cards for voters, but her storied background must have been equally attractive. Now a mother of two grown-up daughters, she and her future husband Ted moved to Alta Lake, as Whistler was once known, in 1973 and soon became squatters.

Sure, it was the hippie thing to do, the 58-year-old explains, but even then it was difficult to rent a place here. With only cold running water and an outhouse, she adds it was “not easy but fun.” After four years, the couple saved enough to buy their own home. Her spouse, as it happens, is now a realtor.

Unconventional living sits well with an image of Wilhelm-Morden being a good sport in general. Among the usual snaps of mayoral duties on Facebook, you can also find her gamely bobsledding at the Whistler Sliding Centre. “I wanted my $10,000 back as danger pay,” she says with a laugh. “I’m a personal injury lawyer; I don’t like taking physical risks.”

It’s a profession that sees a lion’s share of tragedies, but one she always hankered after. Following typical Whistler jobs such as being a server and blasting and flagging on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, Wilhelm-Morden studied law at UBC.

She has just settled one high-profile case representing Gilles Blackburn, who became stuck in the backcountry in Golden for nine days and saw his wife die before he was rescued. To her mind, the lawsuit against the RCMP, Golden Search and Rescue and Kicking Horse Resort was “a real game-changer” with the province now offering search and rescue organizations liability insurance.

Wilhelm-Morden may heed the dictum that lawyers “do what they have to do,” but that doesn’t mean cases are easy emotionally. “I’m not thick-skinned,” she says poignantly. “I go home and cry.” And bake, it seems: arriving at work with banana bread is a sure indicator that sh’es been fretting in the middle of the night. “I find cooking grounding,” she explains simply.

What’s keeping her baking currently is the battle to close down an asphalt plant, owned by Whistler Aggregates, said to affect next-door residents in the former Olympic Athletes’ Village (now called Cheakamus Crossing). With the B.C. Supreme Court upholding the firm’s right to stay, Wilhelm-Morden says other options are being explored – although she’s not ready to reveal them. “That’s the one continuing disappointment of my term so far,” she concedes.

But judging by her track record, it looks like a fight this tenacious mayor isn’t likely to give up on anytime soon.