Mountain Forecast: firings with periods of litigation

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Sunshine Village’s firing last winter of seven ski patrollers, including two of its senior-most personnel, hit the skiing world like a string of explosives shattering a cornice. The appearance of heavy-handed ski resort owners protecting a wayward family member by punishing hard-working and public-spirited employees seemed like a ready-made morality tale. It stirred popular passions, becoming the topic of innumerable chairlift-ride, lunchtime and barroom conversations. Everyone seemed to know someone, or someone who knew someone, who’d been involved. The reaction included fundraising for the patrollers, supportive e-mails from around the world and a Facebook page with more than 8,000 followers. Feelings intensified when some of the patrollers sued Sunshine Village Corporation. Everyone had an opinion —and most leaned hard in favour of the patrollers.

photo: Frank Baumann

The agreed facts —and there are few not in dispute —are that on December 7, 2010, Sunshine ski patroller Charlie Hitchman came upon five skiers inside a closed area, later revealed as Boundary Bowl (a small feature near the Continental Divide chairlift unconnected to Sunshine’s extreme terrain). One of the skiers was Thomas Taylor Scurfield, the university-age son of ski resort co-owner Ralph Scurfield. The two parties had words and Hitchman called for backup. One of the five skiers was let go. After this, almost everything is disputed. The VIP skiing passes and driver’s licences of Scurfield and his companions were either requested or seized, and the skiers were either asked or forced to ski with the patrollers to the mountain safety office. Once there, Chris Chevalier, Sunshine’s veteran mountain and risk manager, also became involved.

Twelve days later Chevalier, his nephew Ben Chevalier, lift operations supervisor, and colleagues Rowan Harper, snow safety supervisor, and Chris Conway, senior patroller, were terminated “for cause” (.e. Sunshine claimed it had good reason to fire them). Three weeks thereafter Hitchman was laid off, allegedly after refusing to apologize to the Scurfields. The following day a group of patrollers called in sick, forcing Sunshine to operate with just a few lifts open. Of this group, patrollers Craig McArthur and Jock Richardson stated they were protesting Hitchman’s dismissal.  The next day, these two were fired for insubordination. A week after that Chris and Ben Chevalier, Harper and Conway sued Sunshine for wrongful dismissal, seeking compensation plus punitive damages.

The legal filings read like a bitter divorce proceeding. The patrollers accuse Sunshine of malice and Taylor Scurfield of being abusive and highhanded —asking Hitchman, “Do you know who I am?”, claiming he could ski anywhere he liked, owing the patrollers would “pay” and, later, engineering their dismissal. In his statement of defence, Taylor denies the accusations, claiming the patrollers were physically intimidating, threatened at least one of the skiers with arrest, mocked their VIP ski passes and learned his last name only because they had demanded his driver’s licence. He claims the patrollers “confined” him and his friends in the infirmary. The patrollers deny everything in their reply to Taylor’s defence.

In its statement of defence, Sunshine variously accuses the patrollers of misreporting the closure incident and of subsequent insubordination, and raises accusations unrelated to the incident that the patrollers pursued a “culture of corruption ” which included conducting personal business on Sunshine property, cronyism, negligence, drinking in company-provided vehicles, having girlie photos on the wall and incompetence. In their written reply, the patrollers deny Sunshine’s accusations as recent “inventions and fabrications” which are “malicious, spiteful [and] untrue.”

A common and, I think, valid thread in the public conversation is that business owners and their entourage can’t see themselves as immune to their own operation’s rules. If anything, they need to hold themselves to higher standards. There’s no droit du seigneur allowing them to run amok in avalanche terrain. If Taylor Scurfield wants to be first into special terrain, he should become a ski patroller. Among the dumbest lines anyone can use, under any circumstances, is, “Do you know who I am?” (As mentioned, Taylor denies doing so.)

What I do find disturbing, however, is the skiing public’s black-and-white take. One Facebook page was typical: “In their tenure there [the fired patrollers] set a work ethic that has shaped many young peoples (sic) lives, leading with compassion and by example.” There seemed a whiff of class warfare among those rallying around the noble, self-sacrificing and morally pure
ski patrollers in their struggle against a merciless corporate machine operated by sinister thugs. This in, of all places, Alberta, where tens of thousands of people are business owners and hundreds of thousands more owe their designer homes, luxury SUVs and skiing vacations to well-paying corporate jobs. (Chris Chevalier earned nearly $100,000 plus an array of benefits
including a vehicle and fuel.)

There were also variations on the claim that ski patrollers “risk their lives daily to protect skiers.” Joining the Canadian Forces and being posted to a combat outpost in Afghanistan—now that’s risking your life on a daily basis. However, avalanche control is a limited part of a patroller’s job. Doing safety plans on the computer, manning radio dispatch or knocking the night’s rime off the perimeter rope doesn’t qualify.

I met “Chevy” and Harper back when Sunshine was preparing to open its steep Goat’s Eye area in the mid-’90s. Both seemed competent, helpful and friendly. Still, we’re all human. If we’re honest, we’ll admit we have not-so-good days when we say or do things we wish we could take back. Ski patrollers aren’t superhuman. Authority over others and membership in
a special brotherhood creates risks of an entitlement mentality and potential for abuse. Virtually everyone seems to think the Scurfields abused their authority. Isn’t it possible the patrollers also over-reacted?

The most fatuous opinion I heard was, “Closed is closed, those boys shouldn’t have been in there.” But in fact, there’s a gigantic difference between poaching Delirium Dive after a metre of fresh during avalanche hazard level 4 while people are conducting avalanche control beneath you—which would border on homicidal—and entering an area that’s closed because it’s rocky rather than dangerous, and the patrol hasn’t gotten around to opening yet, but is soon to open—the case here. Enforcement should fit the seriousness of the foul and the magnitude of the harm. Speeding a wee bit down an empty rural highway isn’t the same as racing through a school zone.

And ski patrollers normally employ discretion. Last season I saw some over-eager youth’s duck a clearly marked rope-line at Lake Louise. A patroller bellowed and wagged his finger, the boarders came back in-bounds calling “Sorry” and that was it. In other cases, areas get poached habitually and the busy patrol looks the other way. A few seasons back I watched a slope of waist-deep untracked powder in Fernie’s Siberia Bowl skied into softpack, all while closed—and nothing was done. The Boundary Bowl incident was far less serious than that. Sunshine’s policy calls for first-time violators of slope closures to be “educated” (i.e., get a stern talking-to on the slopes), then be allowed to resume skiing. But in this case, only one of five
skiers was released. Why?

Enforcement also needs to be done fairly. Setting first tracks into an area others had left alone would risk creating a dangerous free-for-all. But what about an area that dozens of others had already travelled through unmolested? It would be a bitter pill to go in as skier No. 40 or 100 and get singled out to have your pass pulled. According to Taylor Scurfield’s statement of
defence, that’s what happened. If true, I can understand his outrage.

The matter remains in the middle, pre-trial legal stages, and we shouldn’t be surprised to hear of settlement talks. The patrollers’ lawyer politely turned down my interview request, citing the need to avoid litigating through the news media. Sunshine Village seems very eager to move on. “It was a very, very painful process, but we really consider it done,” Doug Firby, Sunshine’s associate director, communications, told Ski Canada in September. “There’s a court case, but it’s not about whether those folks will work at Sunshine again, it’s about what is an
appropriate level of compensation.” Firby says Sunshine has hired a replacement for Chris Chevalier.

I’m sure there’s much we’ll never learn about why an objectively trivial event unleashed such consequences and so much bitterness. Probably many of those involved wish they had handled things differently. A friend of mine, a lifelong skier who never violates closures, put it this way: “Trying to sort this out is like deciding who to cheer for in a prison riot.” ❄


Doug Firby of Sunshine Village responds in Letters to the Editor, 40th Anniversary issue.

George Koch
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