An iconic town in mountain culture, Banff rests beneath the towering Canadian Rockies along the Trans-Canada Highway. The majority of locals and visitors prefer Sunshine Village, known for its feather-in-your-cap drops in Delirium Dive and Silver City. These areas are considered some of the steepest in-bounds terrain in the country, but now the resort is becoming famous for a different reason. And this one likely won’t melt away in the spring.
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. That, however, was just the beginning of the resort’s tumultuous January.
Sources believe that the employee defections and resulting lawsuit stem from an incident on Dec. 19, when a 22-year-old ski patrol member named Charlie Hitchman approached a group skiing in a closed area. According to ski patroller Craig McArthur, the group was verbally abusive and belligerent. One of the members even barked “Do you know who I am?”
Hitchman felt the situation was escalating and several ski patrol members arrived. The group’s members were ushered to patrol headquarters, where a senior patroller discussed ski area boundaries with them before returning their V.I.P. passes (something that’s typically against policy).
It turns out that one of the group’s members was Taylor Scurfield, son of Sunshine Village owner Ralph Scurfield. According to McArthur, after the incident, Hitchman was asked by Scurfield in early January to write a letter of apology to the Scurfield family.
“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. Once Hitchman was let go, the remaining ski patrol members became outraged. Nearly 40 ski patrollers, groomers, and lift operators met the following day to discuss their next steps. Those who arrived agreed to call in sick as a sign of protest. With a skeleton staff, the resort was forced to close nine of 12 lifts.
“We felt bad about [the strike] because we didn’t want to endanger the public by having a smaller staff,” said McArthur, a part-time patroller and former volunteer paramedic at Sunshine Village. “On the other hand, we had to stand up for what we believed.”
Four more employees were terminated or resigned during the month, including three additional 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 because of his employer’s behavior, increasing the total number of employees lost to eight.
The terminations essentially gutted the mountain’s safety department, all while managing one of the most unstable continental snow packs in recent memory.
“The experience those guys had is irreplaceable, especially Chevy (Chris Chevalier) and Rowan,” said Jim Salter, a Revelstoke patroller and former ski patroller at Sunshine Village. “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). I wouldn’t want to be badly injured at that mountain right now.”
According to McArthur, Scurfield has offered many reason’s for Hitchman’s termination, including financial troubles at the resort. Scurfield also said he felt Hitchman had exercised poor judgment with his son.
According to Sunshine Village, Hitchman was officially laid off, and the four senior-level employees, as well as McArthur and Richardson, were fired with cause. Sunshine Village spokesperson Doug Firby said “We will vigorously defend this unwarranted, untruthful attack on the integrity of a respected professional organization and its 700 valued employees.”” Firby also confirmed that Scurfield was unavailable for comment for this story. The resort also denies any dismissal related to the incident with his son. Richardson and Hitchman were unavailable for comment and it remains unclear if they will pursue legal action.
A former Sunshine Village employee doesn’t expect the truth to be revealed anytime soon. Lisa Grey, a former group sales employee of five years filed a wrongful dismissal suit against the resort in 2001, when she was let go for “irreconcilable differences.” At the time, Grey was owed two years of commission checks totaling around $40,000. The resort’s legal team managed to delay proceedings for seven years until a judge ruled in Grey’s favor in 2008. The resort had to repay much of her legal fees and her commission checks, plus interest.
The communities of Banff and Canmore have displayed unyielding support for the fired ski patrollers. A Facebook page titled “Support Ski Patrol Wronged by Sunshine Village Ski Resort” has grown to over 6,500 members.
“I am friends with these guys, and I’ve told them to make sure it’s worth it…it could cost a lot of dough,” Grey said. “It’s really sad because Sunshine Village is this incredible ski resort with incredible people. But Ralph (Scurfield) thinks he is above and beyond the rules and regulations. Finally the shit has hit the fan and everybody is ready to stand up to him.”
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.