LETTER: 20 minutes on Highway 3

Reader Pierre Mangan questions the benefits and social costs of the Shambhala Festival.

Over the span of a lifetime, 20 minutes is nothing. A blip. A nanosecond. There are times, however, when 20 minutes can stretch into an eternity. I experienced such a state of timelessness last week while stopped in the heat with my family waiting for cars to leave the Shambhala campsite on Highway 3. This traffic halt gave me ample time to contemplate the role that Shambhala plays in our community and to consider whether its impact is a net positive or negative.

For the first five minutes of the wait, I was awestruck at the number of people exiting the site. There is no doubt that this is a huge and profitable business. Congratulations to the owners for building a large brand and attracting so many people to their world-class event.

For the next five minutes, I thought about the broad community support that Shambhala has enjoyed in the West Kootenays. This social licence has been developed over many years among local stakeholders and partners.

At the ten-minute mark, things started to go down hill. Cars held up in the jam were honking. A driver ahead of us was very angry. I asked one of the Shambhala workers how much longer we would have to wait. He had just been dealing with the agitated driver ahead of us, and belligerently responded — “As long as we want!” When I incredulously asked if their permit allowed them to shut down our highway indefinitely he laughed and said: “Enjoy the wait!”

Admittedly, from the ten to the fifteen-minute mark I was not the picture of zen-like calm that my friends and family are used to. Puzzled by the stubborn refusal to alternate traffic flows, I started to think about some of the other social costs associated with the Shambhala business. Besides the obvious hijacking of public highway infrastructure, the extra police and health care resources required, the noise, the crime and the mess, when I looked at the people leaving the site, I wondered about the human cost. The people leaving did not seem happy. There was no sparkle. It was a joyless procession.

The last five minutes of our wait were not my finest. The Shambhala traffic boss came around to take pictures of cars whose owners had honked or voiced concerns over the wait time. When I dutifully flipped him the bird in my pose he exclaimed that he was calling the RCMP. While any police presence in the traffic mess would have been most welcome by all of us in the queue, I would have to wait another ten minutes before being pulled over at a check stop to answer to the Shambhala complaint. The RCMP, who clearly had their hands full with other matters, were very professional and quickly sent us on our way.

Those 20 minutes certainly felt like they lasted a lifetime. In the end, I was left with some bigger questions for our communities, none of which have to do (directly!) with the traffic inconvenience that I experienced.

Do the highly concentrated economic benefits accruing to the owners of Shambhala outweigh the social costs to the region and governments?

How is Shambhala helping mitigate community impacts, including increases in crime, environmental and health effects, before and after the events?

Is Shambhala treating its so-called “volunteers” fairly, respecting employment and occupational health and safety laws?

Is Shambhala paying its fair share to the government by withholding and remitting payroll taxes on the free ticket compensation it pays employees?

Now, perhaps it was the heat or the rudeness of the staff, but this experience altered my perception of Shambhala. Is its broad social licence from the community being taken for granted? While Shambhala may enjoy above-the-law status from a drug enforcement perspective, I hope that the owners do not think that this immunity extends to the universal laws of human decency, common courtesy and common sense.

Pierre Magnan, Nelson

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