By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Oct 2, 2015
PLANNING to join politics? It will help to get a thick skin and also a respect for diversity of opinion, but before that a desire to volunteer and working for the community causes. It is the advice Green Party candidate Ken Melamed has for those who want to get a taste of what life may be as a politician.
“It’s important to listen to the people you are serving, take their advice, get informed and then decide to take action but with the community in mind,” he says.
As someone who has served Whistler as a municipal councillor and then Mayor for as many as 15 years, Melamed’s advice for aspiring politicians comes with a long and sometimes gruelling experience. He had never aspired to be a politician although he may not have been in Canada if it wasn’t for politics.
Melamed was born in Philadelphia but his family left US and moved to Montreal when he was 13 years old. His father was politically aware and objected to his tax money going to fund the Vietnam War. His protest came in the form of migration to Canada. After finishing his high school in Montreal, he headed west to Jasper to ski and then made his way to Whistler in 1976 where he started working on the ski patrol. In the summer, a friend offered him a job doing stone masonry which finally led him to start his own company, Ken Melamed Stoneworks, which he ran for 18 years until a community movement pushed him towards politics.
The same year Melamed started his company, he responded to a call to start a local environmental organisation, AWARE (Whistler Area Residents for the Environment), whose motive was to reduce landfill waste and champion environmental issues in Whistler. Meanwhile, in 1990, a development proposal came before Whistler council for a second golf course, which later came to be known as the Nicklaus North.
“We were concerned about the proposal because they planned to develop on a very sensitive habitat and wetland. We took an initiative to educate the community about wetlands and the challenges we faced,” he says. But the petitioning to the local government didn’t work, frustrating Ken and making him more aware of the need to change things from within. “As AWARE challenged the development’s land use, I became frustrated with the local bylaws, which made it very hard for locals to look after environmentally sensitive areas. So I ran for council to stand up for the community’s strong desire for environmental stewardship,” he says.
Melamed was elected in 1996 and served nine years on Whistler Council for three terms, and later ran for mayor in 2005 to champion the community sustainability plan and ensure the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games followed the community’s guiding principles.
But getting into the council was only part of the challenge, Melamed says. He had no idea on how steep the learning curve would be. He had run on a specific environmental focus but now there were other things he had to learn. The two most important things he learned about politics was to be patient with the rate of change and learn to listen and compromise. It took him an year to start feeling really comfortable about his job and yet a far bigger challenges lay ahead: Being elected as the Mayor of Whistler.
“Many people didn’t think I could do it because I was considered to be too unconventional, may be not too mainstream enough. I wasn’t a lawyer, just a hard-working member of the community and had to overcome a very big hurdle to present myself as a candidate,” he says.
Coming into politics with a reputation of being an ‘activist’ meant he had to work on creating a positive relationship with the rest of the council and the municipal administration. But in wake of those challenges also came successes of which Melamed is proud of, especially where he was able to stick to his principles and still work out a good deal for RMOW. He was the only councillor who didn’t vote in favour of hosting the Olympics because he was concerned with the size and scope of the games. Compared to Vancouver, IOC, and the Province of BC, and the Government of Canada, Whistler was a small player but that didn’t stop Melamed from raising his voice. Whistler had a cap on new real estate development and VANOC and the province wanted the municipality to forgo that for more real estate development for the game.
“I put up my hand and said, I can’t support the games until I get the assurances that community values are recognised and the first one was to protect ourselves financially and economically,” he recalls.
Melamed says they were able to protect their Official Community Plan and to hold their ground on the games until they got a commitment to hold the most sustainable development. The tough negotiating position, he says, enabled him to become the Mayor of Whistler. As someone with strong green ethics, he can think of several situations where he was able to work with development proponents to protect sensitive habitats. Melamed is inspired by Ralph Nader, who he feels showed tremendous courage to run for president in a country that worships the car and is politically limited to only two parties. But Melamed says he might not need Nader’s courage because more and more people are receptive to Green agenda in Canada.
Melamed will also work for a more diverse economy, support strong communities, and build strong relationships with the First Nations. “Building partnerships is what I’m good at,” he smiles, “and I know I can bring together the diverse voices in this riding to make sure they’re heard in Ottawa.”
It will be a tough campaign for Melamed’s team, with some undecided voters thinking hard about other candidate in an “anything but Harper” approach to electing the next government. “Well, that works for me because I’m also not Harper!” he jokes.