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Breaking a connection: Goodbye, Tofino

May 25, 2011

Photograph: Aerial view of Tofino, Vancouver Island

I’m sad that my first post on “Connections,” after my long hiatus from blogging, is actually about breaking a connection: My connection with my community, Tofino.

Tofino is a funny town. There is a reason that it was, and still is, known as “Tough City.” It’s a paradise for tourists – but it is tough to live in. It has a core community of about 1650 “residents” – and you’d think that that would give it a really nice small-town feel and sense of community.

But Tough City is tough in a number of ways. We receive about one million tourists per year. That is great for bringing jobs into the town – but it means that most of those jobs are low-paying and seasonal (waiting on tables, cleaning hotel rooms, tour-guiding), and also that the town has become very expensive to live in. It is not the kind of town that most people can make their career in. Rather, it is a place where people come to work for a few years: earn some money; enjoy the natural beauty and outdoor activities that Tofino has to offer; and then move on.

This creates what I call a “flow-through” population. Few people who are classified as “residents” in the Canada census data are actually long-term residents: people who grew up here. And few who are here now plan to live here on the long term. Our number of people in the age range 25-34 is nearly twice the provincial average (23%, versus 12% province-wide). But the number of teens aged 15-19 is over one third less than the provincial average (4.2%, versus 6.7% nationwide). These numbers reflect that “flow-through” – lots of young people living here for a few years, but few families.

And that’s the problem of what was once a small town, then turned into a resort-town and now, rapidly, becoming simply a resort. Not much town left, and not much community.

What’s wrong with that? The problem, as I see it, is that many of the people who are classified as residents in the census data are not really residents in terms of their relationship to place. They do not have the connection to Tofino: that knowledge and that commitment that they are here for the long-term, that inspires them to become aware of the issues that affect the town, and perhaps to act and to speak out.

And this is not the fault of those “flow-through” residents at all. Rather, it is simply a problem of the way our society works today. Transportation is too easy, options are many. We are no longer tied to one place the way our ancestors were (whether by choice or not). We can grow up somewhere, go to school somewhere else, then go travelling or take a job overseas. And we can change our mind and move somewhere else at any moment. We gain insight to the global perspective and the bigger picture – but we lose our connection to place, to one place, and to community.

And what else is lost, once we live in a place that we are not connected to, is the impetus to care for it. To become aware of issues, and to be part of the decision-making that keeps our community a great place. It is too easy to give up and move on.

I am sad to say that that is what I am doing with Tofino. I am an activist and action-taker by nature. I’ve been very vocal in my community for years about caring for this place and its people: lobbying for regulation of vacation rental homes so that there is affordable housing for residents; fighting for fair water rates (Tofino’s water rates are highest in the country!); and advocating for adequate emergency planning for the coming earthquake/tsunami.

I am not sure why so few members of our community have come on board about these issues – which affect everyone here – but I suspect that our “flow-through” population has something to do with it (along with the many distractions that keep people from paying attention to important issues: Facebook, TV, hockey scores and more). I have become angry with this place, with the community, and it is time for me to go.

I am moving to Port Alberni. It’s not Tofino, at least not in terms of the wild and natural beauty that Tofino and Clayoquot Sound have to offer. But it is an established and stable community. Most of the new friends I have made there were born and raised there; others have come for stable career jobs and plan to stay. They pay attention to community issues – because Port Alberni is their future – and they care. So maybe it’s a better place for me.

Wish me luck!

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie permalink
    May 25, 2011 8:51 am

    I have lived in Tofino for 3 years – not nearly as long as some people, but long enough. It was too difficult to settle there. I’m in a position where I was ready to buy a home, down the road raise a family. I have a career there – granted, working in a hotel.

    I ended up buying in Ucluelet. Much more affordable housing, more of a community feel. Easier all around. You’re right – it’s difficult to raise a family there.

    I’ll be sad to see you go, as you stood for so much.

    • May 25, 2011 9:22 am

      Thanks very much Debbie. I hope that the people who do still live in Tofino start to stand up for their community. It’s the only hope that the place has, if it is to be a community and not just a vacation resort filled with temporary workers. I find it so very very sad… it has the potential to be so much. Ucluelet really has had the benefit of seeing a lot of Tofino’s mistakes (by being later in on the tourism boom) – but also, the community of Ucluelet has chosen to use that knowledge and apply it to their decision-making.

      I had an interesting comment on this blog post via Twitter – the commentor noted that she is one of the many who used to live in Tofino. It made me wonder… for a village of, officially, 1650 people – I’d bet the “once-lived-in-Tofino” population is huge.

  2. May 25, 2011 4:59 pm

    Jackie, I empathize with you – this is a tough decision, leaving “Tough City” and stepping away from so much that you have invested so deeply in. Like most, I have never been more than a tourist in Tofino but I can see the challenges that such a community (if, as you say, that term is even appropriate) can face.
    Wishing you a meaningful and rich connection with Port Alberni.

    • May 25, 2011 6:07 pm

      Thanks Lorne — that means a lot, coming from you. I know that you too care very deeply about your community, and work hard to make those links between community members strong.

      I honestly don’t know how things will turn out for me in Port Alberni. When I made the decision to live in Tofino (I had already been “living” there for several years before I truly decided to live there) I really thought I had found my place: that I would never move again, that I would grow old and die there. I don’t feel that way about Port Alberni, at least not yet. But I do have a very good feeling about the community there – the fact that there even is one! So who knows… it is a good place for me to go right now, and perhaps it will become my place.

  3. November 15, 2011 5:57 pm

    Interesting dilemma you found yourself in, Jackie. I am slow to have read this post, but kept your message in my in-box all this time as I knew I had to read it and respond.

    I am born and raised in MB, although I have longed to move to the West Coast since 1986. Yet I am still here due to various life circumstances. I often envy people (like you) who have been “free” to make moves at whim. I have never had that option. Maybe someday.

    How are you liking Port Alberni?

  4. Denise permalink
    February 12, 2013 9:12 pm

    Thanks for this post. I have been offered a job in Tofino/Ucluelet and am having trouble making a decision about it. Community is very important to me and I would be leaving what I feel is a wonderful and supportive community in Nanaimo to take this job. Your post has helped me to see what life might be like there from an insider’s perspective. I appreciate the help in making my decision and hope you found what you were looking for in Port Alberni.

    • February 14, 2013 1:23 pm

      Hi Denise –

      Just letting you know that I wrote that post two years ago – and, in some exciting good news, Tofino has a new mayor, Josie Osborne, as of a few weeks ago. I think the town still has a lot of troubles, and I know that more fairly longterm and/or committed locals have left or have decided to leave since I did… but Josie is a really bright light, and the best hope for Tofino’s future that I have seen in a long time.

      I think that Tofino really needs the input of committed locals (by “committed” I mean people who are planning to stay there for the long-term, no matter whether they have already lived there a long time or are just new… what is important is that they plan on staying, and therefore they care (and hopefully act) about the community’s future). Sadly, many have left or intend to leave. There are some really good people there, too, though.

      I sure hope that things get better for the town. It was so sad for me to make the decision to leave – but it has been so good for me to get out of there. Port Alberni is not what most people think (and definitely not what you see from the highway as you drive through). It has a lovely core community of great people, and really great quality of life.

      Best of luck with your decisions,
      Jackie

  5. Margaret permalink
    March 21, 2015 6:17 pm

    What about Tofino as a place to retire, for an active 50-60 year old couple?
    We’ve visited several times in the past 6-7 years and always fall in love with the wild, isolated feel of the place. We love the isolation and the driving rain and walking on the beach and water taxi-ing to the nearby islands.
    Would it be so bad as a retirement community for non-activist types who love the slow, life away from population centres? Not that we don’t care about local environmental issues or community, or are anti social, but we’ve never been politically involved and would probably spend our retirement enjoying the isolation.

    • March 22, 2015 7:00 pm

      Hi Margaret –

      I don’t mean it’s a terrible place… but, personally, I think it’s a better place to visit than to try to live there. Although it’s definitely MUCH better since Mayor Josie Osborne took the helm – she’s great. As for retirement, I think it depends partly on how long you are planning to stay there (and what you can afford, since it is very expensive to buy there). If you are active and in your 50s/60s you might get some really great years there. But as you age and need more medical care, that would be a problem, as the hospital is very basic and it will be a very long drive to medical appointments – and you’ll probably eventually have to relocate.

      Honestly, I am REALLY happy in Port Alberni. I’ll be 51 in a few months… not anywhere near retiring, but still thinking about where I will ultimately end up, and I think Port Alberni has the facilities that will allow you to age without having to relocate in your advanced years. I love the hot summers and gardening possibilities (both difficult in Tofino), and it is such a short drive to get to Ucluelet or Tofino if I want to go (or to Vancouver or Victoria – which is NOT so easy from Tofino). And it is EXTREMELY affordable.

      So there are pros and cons…each person will have their own perspective. Personally, four years after writing the above post, I am still happy with my decision to leave. I have friends around your age who have chosen to retire in Tofino (from Ontario) and they might be open to being in touch with you to give their perspective. Let me know via a comment here if you’d like that, and I will check in with them and see if they’d be open to being in touch with you personally.

      In any case – spend some time in Port Alberni on your next trip through. Four or so years in, I am still really happy with my move. And I can still visit Tofino easily.

      Cheers,
      Jackie

      • Margaret permalink
        March 24, 2015 1:07 pm

        Hi Jackie, thanks for your reply. Great blog btw! – we are seriously considering various options. We are both 51 as well, so no rush as I have to get my son through high school. We can’t ditch our urban existence in Vancouver til he’s graduated – Class of 2016, still a year and a half away.
        Anyway, excellent points about Tofino vs. Port Alberni. Funny, as we were driving through Pt. A. last week on our way home from Spring break in Tofino, we also wondered about moving to Pt.A. to retire!
        But then we weren’t sure about the mill town stereotype. I didn’t notice any pulp mill smell – is the mill still open? – does it still stink up the town?
        Also, is there an indoor swimming pool in Pt. A. (with 25 metre lanes)? Swimming laps at public pools is something we would miss about Vancouver!
        Another question, are there paths for running/walking/jogging in Pt. A.?
        One of us is heavily into running along the Vancouver seawalls – not in marathons or running events – just needs a place for individual runs on a regular basis. That 8 km (each way) path from the Tofino junction into Ucluelet sure looks awesome and even has a hill for greater cardio benefit :) There’s also the shorter path right in Tofino, and the Wild Pacific trail in Ucluelet, of course.
        Anything like those in Port A.?
        Yes, would also love to hear the perspective of your friends who retired in Tofino if they are willing to be contacted.
        Thanks for your excellent points on affordibility factors, medical services, etc. Definitely things to consider. We are both still working. So realistically, the earliest we can access our pensions without an un-workable reduction, is age 55.

      • March 24, 2015 5:09 pm

        Hi Margaret –

        Yes, there is a 25m pool here in Port Alberni, with lanes open for much of the day. (There is not in Tofino – sometimes one ofthe hotel pools will open for the public, but it is very small and with no lanes, often with kids playing).

        And the running and hiking here in Port Alberni is amazing. Check out my other blog, http://www.daveandjackierun.wordpress.com, to see some of the trails. There are lovely trails here, both right in town and much longer ones with trailheads on the edge of town. The Log Trail Trail is an old railway bed,and something like 30 km long (with multiple access points through town) and great for mountain biking or walking or running. Most of the other trails are single-track, many of them quite hilly, but there are several other wide gravel trails running through forested areas right through town too that are easy to bike (no technical skill required) or run. I think Port Alberni’s trail are its greatest hidden secret – I’m on them every day (back in from one just now, in fact).

        Running in Tofino was very limited…either the paved bike path (7 km from town to the end), or running the beaches (beautiful, but short) or the new little Lighthouse Trail up the top of 1st Street (again, beautiful, but short). The Wild Pacific Trail is spectacular for running – but it’s a long drive from Tofino just for a run.

        Port Alberni is not perfect… but it feels like a town that is on its way up. I’ve heard people call it “the new Squamish.” Definitely not there yet – but I think it has that potential. No, I never smell the mill here (although I hear it sometimes). Housing is SO affordable here – I would just say to buy above the tsunami line (around 8th Ave or higher). But that’s an even bigger issue with Tofino… that town will be SO destroyed and cut off by the earthquake and tsunami…. Get online and check out home prices… you can buy totally fine homes for around $200,000 (like my 5br house in a nice part of town), and really nice luxurious homes for $300-$400,000.

        Like I said, I am really happy here. I feel like I have made a good choice – both financially and as far as quality of life goes – and I am pretty sure that I will live here for the rest of my life. (And Tofino is close enough that it is still easy to visit).

        I’ll check in with my friends who retired to Tofino – if they are open to corresponding with you, I’ll get them to email you directly.

        Cheers,
        Jackie

  6. Dude permalink
    January 26, 2016 6:11 pm

    I lived in Tofino for almost 2 years in 2007/08. I had the same experience. The people of Tofino don’t want to allow for reform on Vacation rentals because it’s a lucrative business that it seem only those who were lucky enough to get in when things were still cheap are making an OBSCENE amount of money from. They have no real care for people otherwise more of them would offer reasonably priced year-round housing. They are capitalists. Which is hilarious because everyone up there claims to be hippy-dippy and one with nature and all loving and spiritual but really they are a bunch of neo-Liberal capitalist douchebags who refuse to like any outsiders and just want to rape and pillage tourists’ and workers’ wallets. Its quite sad and pathetic really.

  7. Bob Smith permalink
    July 1, 2016 5:11 am

    Hi Jacqueline,

    As a fellow young person, I can say that I love the lifestyle in Tofino. I’m from Alberta originally but the place is absolutely amazing. There are a tonne of young people to hang out with but so many come and go it’s hard to have a long term relationship here. Mostly it’s just hook ups or short term relationships here as no one is really able to settle down here due to the high costs relative to the low wages. As someone who was feeling trapped in my old city and job Tofino has been a godsend. I don’t know how long I will be here but I enjoy every minute. I do wonder how long I can stay here and of i can find that special someone to settle down with. But for now I’m enjoying my self with casual relationships.

    Best,
    Bob

  8. Marc Hanslo permalink
    June 10, 2017 11:25 am

    Hi Jacqueline
    I am researching the Tifino area,
    Obviously a nature lover.. and totally agree that the beauty is hidden in the rain clouds and once
    The curtains draw, beauty at its best and gives you the reasons for staying.
    That been said, reading your blog and see what educational background you have, it is sad to learn about your views of what has become of a community
    I would appreciate more conversation with you:)
    Kind Regards. Marc

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