Sunshine Village ski area in Banff National Park is facing a $435,000 “wrongful firing” lawsuit and accusations of nepotism after the resort terminated four longtime safety staff in the wake of an incident allegedly involving the son of the resort’s owner, who was caught skiing a closed area.
According to court documents, Taylor Scurfield, son of Sunshine Village owner Ralph Scurfield, was discovered December 17 skiing in a closed area with friends. After being escorted out of the closure by a first year patrolman, Scurfield threatened to “make the ski patrolmen pay,” according to the suit. Twelve days later, four senior employees, Rowan Harper, Chris Chevalier, Ben Chevalier and Chris Conway (Mountain Operations Manager, Snow Safety Manager, Lift Operations Supervisor, and Chief Patroller, respectively), were allegedly fired after being privately questioned about the incident by the senior Scurfield. According to court documents, the stated reasons for their terminations included “loss of trust” and “clerical errors made on waivers.” Chris Chevalier and Rowan Harper have both worked at Sunshine for more than 25 years. The lawsuit, filed January 26, is asking for almost half a million dollars in damages related to lost wages and benefits for all four personnel.
Charlie Hitchman, the patroller whose interaction with the junior Scurfield trigger the brouhaha, was also terminated after allegedly refusing to write a letter of apology for the incident. Hitchman is still considering whether to join the lawsuit.
Sunshine’s media and marketing director, Doug Firby, declined to comment on either the firings or lawsuit, stating it was “against company policy.”
“It is our position that the personnel involved were doing exactly what they’re trained to do in order to maintain safety on the hill,” says Andrew Robertson, the lawyer representing the four employees.
On January 19, all but six patrollers staged a sick-day walkout in protest and the resort opened with only three of 12 lifts running, giving skiers discounted passes. Two of those patrollers, Craig McArthur and Jock Richardson, were fired the next day.
“I got fired, they didn’t give me a reason, they just said it was just cause,” McArthur told the Calgary Herald. “Then they escorted me from the property.” McArthur said he was told he would be prosecuted for trespassing if he returned.
Given Sunshine Village’s reputation is a family-oriented ski area with a deep sense of community among both staff and skiers, the loss of such prominent longtime personnel has prompted no small amount of anger and frustration—some of which was vented on the resort’s Facebook page. That page appears to have been disabled — links on the Sushine home page lead only to facebook.com — but a mirrored version is available with plenty of critical comments. Though the resort denies any negative morale issues among the staff, tensions continue to mount.
A “Support Ski Patrol” page has recently appeared on Facebook and members of the community have held fund raising gatherings in nearby Canmore.
“When the owner starts firing people because they dared to enforce the resort’s policy on closed runs by escorting skiers who violate it off the hill, even if those skiers are their relatives, something is wrong,” said one patrol member who declined to be identified. “The problem is that losing guys like that who have done so much to help the area grow over the last two decades not only hurts morale, it raises some pretty disturbing safety issues for everyone.”
One additional detail that makes the situation ironic is the fact that Ralph Scurfield, Sr., father of Sunshine’s current owner, grandfather of the skier caught in a closed area, was killed in an avalanche in 1985 while heliskiing.