A combination of Whistler’s small population and a large transient workforce has spared some Whistler pub owners from any significant impacts a new federal program is imposing on Canada’s live music scene.
The issue stems from the federal government’s new Temporary Foreign Workers Program that went into effect July 3. Employers must now pay a $275 fee, as part of a labour market opinion (LMO) application, when hiring non-Canadian employees. The program extends to the local music scene, as restaurants and bars are viewed as the employers of any foreign musician performing on their stage.
But Joey Gibbons, owner of Gibbons Hospitality, which operates five established Whistler venues, including, Buffalo Bills and Longhorn Pub, said Whistler is too small of a community to draw many foreign performances. Out of more than 100 acts he hosts throughout the year, the few foreign musicians that would meet the requirements for the work permit application have already been vetted and booked through Gibbon’s larger venue in Vancouver, the Vogue Theatre.
However, Gibbons primarily relies on Whistler’s constantly refreshed pool of new musicians to keep his stages full.
“There’s not a big enough fan base to draw those smaller foreign acts. It doesn’t seem to work that well in Whistler. But there’s a lot of local talent — really amazing musicians that come here to hang out for the winter.”
The new program came into effect in about two months, but even club owners didn’t appreciate the impacts until last week when the Calgary Herald pointed out its connection to the music scene.
“I think we’re all trying to understand the impacts of this foreign worker’s fee,” said Mike Varrin, general manager of Whistler Blackcomb bars. “It’s always been a process of bringing foreign workers into town, across borders, and now it’s all changed in the last 60 days or so. I just hope that it wouldn’t impact the high quality of international entertainment we get in Whistler.”
The Ministry of Employment, Social Development and Multiculturalism, responsible for the program, stated the nonrefundable fee would deter employers from sponsoring any but the most qualified applicants for Canadian jobs. The announcement stunned the Canadian arts community to learn the $275 application fee was applicable to small-time musicians, but also that it applies to every member of the band, including technicians and managers.
But not all pub owners are concerned.
Jono Young at the Crystal Lounge was at first worried he may have to reconsider two upcoming acts by foreign musicians, but because they’re already on working holiday visas, the new federal program wouldn’t apply.
“It’s not going to affect us at all. All the people who play for us are passing through town on a working holiday. But the indie music scene is going to be affected for sure for any international act trying to come through.”
For local funk musician and award-winning looper "Papa" Josh Suhrheinrich, the program has quickly shut down plans of bringing his Seattle-based funk band, Klozd Sirkut, to play in Whistler.
“It’s just not an option anymore. The way I see it, only Canadian bands will play, on the small scale, in Canada.”
Rising fuel costs, mounting popularity of electronic music over live bands and struggling venues have already crippled the touring music scene in the past 10 years, Suhrheinrich said. The dual citizen of Canada and the United States doesn’t expect bar owners to throw money at foreign worker permits when there are plenty of talented Canadian bands to fill the void.
“This is an extra thing to throw into the bundle. Until a (US) band has really established themselves on a level where you’re going to get to see them in the Commodore or somewhere, you’re not going to see them in Canada.
“(Until now) it’s been a really cool history of having acts travel into Canada. There’s a whole level of live music that flourishes in North America … it was a livable dream: travelling and playing music, all along the west coast, into the ski areas of Canada and the US.”
The blanket amendment to the Temporary Foregin Workers Program has reverberated throughout Whistler, a resort community reliant on foreign workers out of necessity, not as a cost-saving scheme.
The Whistler Chamber of Commerce has vowed to lobby the B.C. and Canadian chambers to push the federal government to consider exempting processing fees for the resort.