Joan & Marcel Richoz
What happens when a woman from Vancouver, with a latent love of books, art and culture, and a skier from Switzerland, with dance moves that put Michael Jackson to shame, cast their lots in life together? What else? They move to the nascent ski town, Alta Lake, build on land they were prescient enough to risk buying when everything about the place was an out-and-out risk and become key players in what grows into the best ski resort in North America — Whistler.
And live happily ever after? You have to ask?
Joan, from Winnipeg, met Swiss-born Marcel who immigrated to Canada in 1965. Living in Vancouver, they skied Whistler in the early years. Marcel was inspired and bought property in 1968. After living for a year in a small village in the French part of Switzerland in the early 1970s, they headed back to Canada.
But Vancouver was no longer their kind of town. So shortly after returning in 1972, they drove up to Whistler to camp on their property for the summer. “We felt like pioneers,” recalled Joan. Pioneering it was and by summer’s end, they decided to build a small — 10′ round — cabin and return the following summer. The lack of electricity and water was no barrier to Marcel’s carpentry skills and handiness with a chain saw.
The cabin is still here. So is the house they began to build the next summer. So are they. And the town is richer for it.
Their move in 1973 grew the town by two. Considering there were only about 300 permanent residents — virtually all of whom they came to know — theirs was a significant addition, the significance of which revealed itself dramatically over the coming decades.
In the place of such modern amenities as grocery stores, doctors and pharmacies, all missing from the small ski town, “There were the mountains, lakes, community events and wonderful neighbours who were building at the same time and became lifelong friends,” according to Joan.
It was that community spirit that made the temporary privations seem insignificant. It didn’t take long to realize Whistler was not only a wonderful place to raise a family — soon to become a reality with daughter Marika and son Noah — but it was, “The ability to have an idea and see it to fruition in no time, being able to build an unusual house, knowing almost everyone in town, having the opportunity to volunteer, meeting people from all over the world,” and, of course, the rich natural beauty afforded by mountains and lakes.
Those opportunities to volunteer opened up a rich path forward. Joan volunteered for the Whistler Arts Council in 1983 and the Council convinced the municipality to allocate space in the basement of municipal hall that would become Whistler’s first library. A seat on the first library board led to Joan becoming the town’s first librarian when the doors were opened in 1986, a position she held for the next two decades.
Like the town, the library grew but never lost its community feeling. Joan was the kind of librarian who, when asked for a recommendation, knew enough about what you liked to guide you to something you were sure to enjoy.
But as one thing leads to another, her volunteering grew to embrace work on the Arts Council, the Assembly of BC Arts Councils, the Association of BC Library Directors, the Mature Action Community, the Sea to Sky Radio Society, Whistler Farmers Market, the Audain Art Museum, Whistler Community Foundation, Sea to Sky Arts Councils Alliance, Whistler 2020 Learning Task Force, Maurice Young Millennium Place Society and others.
Her tireless community-building efforts didn’t go unnoticed. She was awarded the BC Community Achievement Award in 2010, named Whistler’s Citizen of the Year in 2011, honoured with the Freedom of the Municipality in 2012 and an Excellence Award as Champion of Arts and Culture in 2014.
As went Joan, so went Marcel, dancing all the way. Having completed an apprenticeship in Switzerland, he was hired by a local contractor, learned carpentry and joined the effort to build the town, doing fine work on several hotels and the Whistler Conference Centre. With friend and neighbour, Pascal Simon, he started a roofing and siding company and helped build up Whistler’s neighbourhoods.
But being always an avid skier, he embraced the mountains anew in semi-retirement, working as a Mountain Host and since the turn of the century, a ski instructor.
Of course, Joan’s volunteer activities drew in Marcel and with well-honed skills, he was right there when any project needed a jack-of-all-trades.
For both Joan and Marcel, their love of and dedication to Whistler circles back to the qualities they found attractive from their first visits — the natural wonder and outstanding community spirit. They have, as they say, lived the dream in a town where their efforts helped shaped what it grew to become.
It’s their sincere hope people understand the opportunities open to them are still the driving force in Whistler.
Oh, and Marcel hopes they’ll join him on the dance floor.