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Citizen of the Year Stella Harvey

Photo includes Keith Reynolds, 2019 Citizen of the Year (left), Stella Harvey, 2022 Citizen of the Year (middle), Claire Mozes, CEO at Whistler Community Foundation.

In Conversation with Stella Harvey

by Lisa Severn

When I asked Stella Harvey for an interview, she went out of her way to line up our schedules and send me a video conference link, all while she was on family vacation in Greece. Something told me that it wasn’t so much a desire to be interviewed that had Stella on her toes. And I had my suspicions that it was her longing to be generous and open with her community. The interview proved my hypothesis right.

I’d seen Stella around town for years. But I’d never come face to face to learn just how clever and funny she is. “I have a tendency to run before I walk,” Stella tells me when I asked if she had a vision for Whistler Writers Festival from that first event in her living room.

I get the sense from her story that Stella is a quick to action kind of person. She went on to say that she can attribute her move to Whistler as one of the key factors in stimulating the writer’s group and subsequent festival. Stella had worked in Europe prior to arriving here, and she notes that community was a big part of everyone’s experience in places like Rome.

“I didn’t know where I fit,” recounted Stella about Whistler.

She went on to share her feelings of disconnection with the late Florence Peterson who invited Stella to make it her own community. Finding the right fit started to come together in Stella’s mind. She had wanted to start writing again.

Off she went to the library to ask about a writers’ group. Joan Richoz, Whistler’s first librarian advised Stella that she should start one. An advert went into the paper – and 20 people showed up to the first meeting. And after a workshop, on the Sunshine Coast Stella returned to Whistler to start the festival.

Early Days Set an Intimate Tone for Writers Festival

In those first years of the festival, professional development was the focus. The group would have writers come to offer advice on writing – showing up to give a presentation on Friday and workshops through the weekend. Stella had even put-up guest writers who couldn’t find or afford a room to stay.

That kind of intimacy, according to Stella, has carried on throughout the 20 plus years of festivals. The folks she has teamed up with to deliver the festival have been there since the beginning and bring a sense of connection over time to the community of festival seekers. This kinship of sorts gives the festival team an understanding of how to meet the needs and desires of the people who come to the festival every year.

Stella explains that while the festival used to include mostly crafting sessions, it now favours the warmth of lounging the afternoon away with a favourite writer or storyteller.

While volunteering for 20 years for the festival was one of the key reasons that Stella was nominated for Citizen of the Year, it isn’t the only thing that makes up her intensely busy life. When I asked about how she does it, she said that sometimes it’s hair pulling, and at other times a balancing act. She has a “brain that talks” to her, as she put it. Her mind, seemingly on its own, designs new processes, gets her out of bed early to write, puts her to work scheming about nearly anything under the sun.

Stella, before moving on to a new topic, adds that “planning a day allows you to do anything you want to do.” I liked that she interjected with compact advice throughout our chat.

It's a Desire for Connection

Stella had been heavily influenced by her parents who were immigrants to Canada seeking ways to fit in; and generosity came naturally to them. A knock at the door at Christmas time was always a surprise, because one – if not many family members – would invite someone in need of a Christmas companion or meal. As a kid, Stella volunteered for organizations serving her community of the time. But the Whistler Writers Festival was different in Stella’s mind because it was about “creating something to see where it would go.”

After getting to know Stella during this conversation, I wondered what was next, would she be able to let go of such a powerful legacy, and would she be as busy as ever. She told me that she “didn’t feel the missing” when she handed the reins to the festival’s first executive director, Rebecca Wood-Barrett.

Rebecca was one of the writers in the living room all those years ago – and the two of them had worked as a volunteer team on much of the festival. Creating employment was the right move in Stella’s mind. She was confident in everyone’s experience and the process that had been laid out would help the staff and volunteer team make it their own and allow them to focus on the creative elements. Stella seemed electrified about a new leader, new vision, and new team.

As we wrapped up our video call, Stella beamed when she relayed that her time at the helm of the festival ended in similar fashion to the beginning. During COVID, everyone — including living room originals— gathered at Stella’s house and broadcast the festival from various rooms. This time they were working hard to bring people from all over Canada and the world together to read, write, and build connection during one of the loneliest times in recent memory. A feat no one could have predicted.

Wherever you hear Stella speak about any success, she is adamant that without community, she couldn’t have done it. “I love people,” Stella adds, “My mother told me not to talk to strangers, but I talk to many. Connection is important and writing is solitary, but [being solitary] doesn’t come naturally for me.”

Stella does many things in the community, like the festival, the teaching at SFU, leading others, it all brings her connection while showcasing the community that she loves and lives in.

Vote for Whistler’s 2023 Citizen of the Year

Nominations close on July 24th, 2023.

Award Criteria

An eligible candidate

  • is an individual*;
  • resides in B.C.;
  • is of any age;
  • makes recent and significant volunteer contributions within the community of Whistler;
  • actively participates in positive change for the benefit of the community;
  • empowers others to build community strength and resilience; and
  • includes community members in a way that builds trust and promotes a sense of belonging.

*At the discretion of the selection committee, a collective (of two or more volunteers) may be considered an individual, when the collective is focused on one or more shared initiatives that have significant impact on the community.