A sense of place

Bill Fisher, outgoing executive director of the Banff Canmore Community Foundation, reflects on what community means to him

for the Banff Canmore Community Foundation

“It was pretty tenuous, I think,” says Bill Fisher of the earliest days of the Banff Canmore Community Foundation, which he has lead as executive director since 2018. That may have been so—he’s conjecturing, given that he wasn’t involved at that time—but it clearly isn’t anymore. Since its launch in 2001 the foundation has grown in all the most important ways: participation, programs, and the communities in which it operates. The endowments have grown in kind, in some cases exponentially. A key endowment was made by the Banff Centre, and Fisher estimates its current value to be in the neighbourhood of $10 million.

Still, he reports those kinds of successes cautiously, important as they may be, in part because they can discourage involvement. “You don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist,” he says, knowing that many, perhaps understandably, feel that you do. It’s too easy to think of a philanthropist as someone with a cigar and an oversized cheque. But Fisher believes that success shouldn’t be gauged just in dollars, it should be gauged in people, too. He joined the BCCF board after retiring from Parks Canada in 2013 as the Vice-president, Operations, Western and Northern Canada. “I’ve always said that there are two ways you can raise a million dollars. You can charge a million dollars to one person to come into the park, or you can charge a buck to a million people.” The first will get the job done, but the second comes with a million champions, a million people who want to see it go well and who will share in the success when it does.

He feels that the same holds true, if not more so, in his work with the foundation. If your goal is to raise a million dollars, he says, “one wealthy benefactor can do that with the stroke of a pen.” He’s certainly not averse to that, to be sure, but he’s also keenly aware of the unique value that the smaller gifts from a crowd of champions can bring. “The bulk of the people that live here are in the 18- to 40-year-old cohort.” They’re baristas and hotel staff, drivers and daycare workers. “When you think about where the benefit might come from a community as a whole—those individuals all working together—it’s powerful.”

“A place where you belong”

His point is well taken. If there are two ways of raising a million dollars, Fisher believes that there’s ultimately only one way to build a community: participation. “Community, at a very sort of simplistic level, is a geographic base,” he says. Specifically, it’s the place where we live. “But a much more important way to look at community is as a sense of place. It’s a place where you belong, and where you feel where you belong, and that other people feel you belong.” They can be big or small, comprised of like-minded hockey parents, or the members of a gym, or the board of an arts organization. Like matryoshka dolls, they can be nested inside each other, the same but different in some key and telling ways. “There’s a zillion ways those things intersect, but when they’re all working properly—and you’re not feeling like you’re left outside of that opportunity, and there’s a room for you to be welcomed into it—then that I see as a community that works.”

One of the goals that Fisher set for himself in his work with the foundation was to continue to expand that sense of place and to make lasting, substantive connections between those nested communities. “The idea that you can get by as a single community sits okay at one level,” he says. “But in order for the Bow Valley to actually function as a living, breathing organism, it really takes all of them to work together.”

That’s true at the level of infrastructure—something that was made particularly plain in the aftermath of the 2013 flood—though there are social and cultural components as well. Fisher has worked to highlight that aspect of healthy communities by working to encourage personal and social connections between what may have too easily remained disparate groups. Most recently, he has been meeting regularly with a group of elders from the Chiniki band, where they’ve been developing a curriculum that includes cultural learnings and Stoney Nakoda language training in combination with continuing education and job training. The result would, he feels, benefit us all, adding to the richness and the resources of the region. For Fisher, that’s what it’s all about: providing opportunities for people to bring their skills, cultures, and perspectives forward in the life of the valley.

“We are one valley, one big mountain community.”

“Maybe it’s just part of my character,” he says, “but I really enjoy the challenge of doing new things.” Certainly, he’s made a life of doing new things, often in new places. Born in Calgary, he went to university in Edmonton, then spent the bulk of his career travelling here, there, and Ontario, too. “Banff certainly is one of our favourite spots,” he says. “This the longest we’ve lived anywhere,” having arrived in 2013. “And it’s close to where we grew up.” He’s a champion of getting outside and doing things, which in itself can make the foothills feel like home.

In 2018 he became executive director of the BCCF with the intention of serving until a permanent director was found. What was initially to be just few months became two years. “I don’t think I’m brilliant at it by any stretch,” he says, though others would argue otherwise. When the new director is announced this fall, Fisher—perhaps inevitably, given his disposition—nevertheless intends to remain involved. As ever, he’s drawn by the challenges and by the successes, too. “When you get to see a grant recipient—it could be a scholarship recipient or a community organization—and you see the work that they’ve done. … You see what they’ve been able to accomplish, the impact that has had on the community. … it’s so gratifying to see that happening, and to know that you played some part in it.”

No doubt it is. While he may be moving out of the executive directorship, he’s not ultimately going all that far. After we spoke he was off to attend some meetings about the disbursement of COVID emergency grants. In the longer term he’ll continue to champion the human capital throughout the valley, and to help ensure the stability of the food security programs. He’ll continue to work with the Stoney Nakoda people, to meet with the Chiniki elders, and to deliver recommendations to the BCCF board. He’ll be on the trails, including Banff Commonwealth Walkway, which, actually, he had a hand in creating. This is where he is, after all, and as he’d be the first to admit, this is where he belongs. This is his community.  


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