UPDATE: From the Calgary Herald:
"Sunshine Village is defending the firing of four employees in court papers filed Thursday that describe a litany of reasons the terminations were justified.
Among the "just causes" listed in the statement of defence are sexual harassment, dishonesty, fraud, soliciting gifts, conducting private business for profit at the ski resort and insubordination."
Read more on the developments: CalgaryHerald.com
Our original story:
A standard ski patrol safety procedure has resulted in a lawsuit from four fired Sunshine Village ski resort employees, with the growing controversy creating a rift between management and employees during the middle of the ski season at this idyllic ski resort in the Canadian Rockies.
On December 29, Chris Chevalier (Mountain Operations Manager), Rowan Harper (Snow Safety Supervisor), Ben Chevalier (Lift Operations Supervisor) and senior patroller Chris Conway were fired for undisclosed reasons. The former employees, with a combined 90 years of experience, responded by filing a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against Sunshine Village. According to the Calgary Herald, the suit seeks approximately $400,000 in damages.
Sources believe that the employee dismissals and the resulting lawsuit stem from an incident on Dec. 19, when 22-year-old ski patroller Charlie Hitchman approached a group skiing in a closed area. According to then ski patroller Craig McArthur, the group was verbally abusive and belligerent. One of the members of the group allegedly said “Do you know who I am?”
Hitchman felt the situation was escalating when several additional ski patrol members arrived to assist. The group was ushered to patrol headquarters, where a senior patroller discussed ski area boundaries with them before returning their V.I.P. passes, which is typically against resort policy after this type of infraction.
Sources said that one of the group’s members was Taylor Scurfield, son of Sunshine Village owner Ralph Scurfield. Hitchman was asked by Ralph Scurfield in early January to write a letter of apology to the Scurfield family, according to McArthur. “He was told that if he didn’t write the letter that he would be fired,” McArthur said. “My advice to him at the time was ‘Don’t do it. You’re totally in the right. Never apologize for doing your job.’”
Fearing for his job, Hitchman wrote the letter. Yet on January 18, he was laid off. Hitchman’s dismissal outraged many resort employees and ski patrol staff, with dozens of employees calling in sick the next day in protest of the firing. With a skeleton staff, Sunshine was forced to close nine of 12 lifts. “We felt bad about [calling in sick] because we didn’t want to endanger the public by having a smaller staff,” McArthur said. “On the other hand, we had to stand up for what we believed.”
Four more employees have subsequently been dismissed or have resigned, including three ski patrol members. At the end of their shifts on January 20, McArthur and fellow ski patroller Jock Richardson were fired. McArthur said a groomer also resigned that week, apparently increasing the total number of employees lost to eight.
“The experience those guys had is irreplaceable, especially Chevy (Chris Chevalier) and Rowan,” said Jim Salter, a former ski patroller at Sunshine Village, and now a patroller at nearby Revelstoke mountain. “It’s going to be pretty hard to get people with paramedic skills and avalanche search and rescue skills (in the middle of the winter).”
According to Sunshine Village spokesman Doug Firby, there is no connection between the incident with the resort owner’s son and any employee dismissals. Firby said Hitchman was officially laid off, and that the four senior-level employees, as well as McArthur and Richardson, were fired with cause. “We will vigorously defend this unwarranted, untruthful attack on the integrity of a respected professional organization and its 700 valued employees,” Firby said. Resort owner Ralph Scurfield was unavailable for comment, according to Firby.
The neighboring mountain communities of Banff and Canmore have displayed support for the fired ski patrollers. A Facebook page titled “Support Ski Patrol Wronged by Sunshine Village Ski Resort” has grown to more than 7,000 members.
Jeremy Evans is a Lake Tahoe-based freelance writer and the author of the recently released book In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum.