Patti Shales Lefkos
Special to The Morning Star
Local entrepreneur and connoisseur of all things skiing, Brian James continues to make an impact on the ski industry after more than sixty years in the game.
Born in Ottawa in 1942, James attended Hopewell Avenue Elementary, Glebe Secondary then went on to study at St. Patrick’s College. During high school he pursued ski racing in both Nordic and Alpine disciplines.
“The coaches were fun, it was exciting and I excelled at it,” James said.
James began his professional ski career at nearby Camp Fortune as a track setter, for cross country and snowshoe trails in the winter and clearing trails in the summer. His first pay was a season’s pass. Then in 1962 he qualified as a Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance CSIA Level II instructor.
During college, he worked as a part time instructor at Edelweiss Valley in Gatineau and at Ski Chantecler in Ste. Adele in the Laurentians. In the summer of 1963, he headed west to Port Alice to work in a pulp mill before returning to teach skiing full time at Chantecler. He rose rapidly through the ranks securing his CSIA Level 3 in Ste. Adele in 1964, followed by Level 4 in Mt Orford in 1966 as well as Level 3 Coaches in Marmot Basin in 1970.
While teaching at Chantecler, James got the phone call that changed his life.
“Peter MacKay-Smith, my good friend and the future owner of then Todd Mountain (now Sun Peaks) asked me to come to Sunshine Village to teach. It was raining in Quebec so my decision was made,” said James. “The next year I was made assistant director of Jerry Johnson’s Ski School.”
From 1964 to 1967 James spent winters honing his ski teaching skills at Sunshine Village, continuing the season at Thredbo in Australia during Canadian summers.
James and his wife Celia moved to Big White Ski Resort for the 1967/68 ski season to take over the ski school and kick off his fifty years of service to the Okanagan Valley ski industry by building The Golden Labrador Lodge at Big White Ski Resort.
“There was a gravel road in. It was a wonderful time. We were in the pioneering stages of the ski industry. People were fun and the Kelowna skiers loved it. The hotel could accommodate 12 guests. The first guest helped me paint the lodge and I still charged him full price,” he said with a laugh. “We served breakfast and dinner and provided entertainment in the evening, all with only one staff member.”
In 1967 Brian formed BJ Recreations Ltd and was owner and operator of the Brian James Ski School.
“We taught a method called Five Steps to Parallel as there wasn’t much grooming,” he said.
Amazingly Celia and Brian found time to raise two children, Jeremy, 48, an actor, and Heidi, 50, a teacher, both living in Australia.
The ’70s brought big changes for Brian. His company operated ski rentals and two retail operations. His marriage dissolved, the lodge became the ski school staff quarters and from 1971 to 1975 he took over the prestigious position as National Technical Chairman for the development of ski teaching and course curriculum for CSIA.
“It was the Trudeau years, so I decided I had to learn French,” Brian said. “I took summers classes at the Royan Language School on the west coast of France.
Then in 1975 a vivacious Air Canada flight attendant Sue Blanchfield visited Big White for a ski holiday and met Brian. They’ve been together since. Their son Josh, an internet marketer raised at SilverStar Mountain, is now 27.
In 1976 Brian’s responsibilities broadened as he headed up the resort management, including the marketing portfolio and built a management team to develop the rapidly expanding Big White Resort from a small family owned area to a corporate style entity.
The financial downturn of the early ’80s saw Big White plummet into receivership in 1986. The resort was purchased by the Schumann family of Australia. With the growth of the ski school and rentals and two retail ski shops, Brian resigned as resort manager to focus on his own business. He continued to operate a retail store in Kelowna and two years later was invited back to run the ski shop on the mountain.
It was an exciting time of change in the Okanagan ski industry and certainly at SilverStar Mountain Resort. John Gow and his fellow owners at SilverStar approached Brian and Sue in the summer of 1992.
“I came on as Vice President of Retail Operations running retail operations, rental and repair and overseeing ski school operations,” Brian said.
Sue opened Coldstream Dry Goods, the popular Silver Star spot for ski fashions, in the winter of 1993 and expanded the space in 1994. Then in 1997 Brian opened Brian James Ski Shop and Valhalla Pure opened across Main Street.
When financial issues hit SilverStar in the ’90s, the Schumann family stepped up again and purchased their second Okanagan Resort.
“By 1998 I was moving across the street to take over the Valhalla location and create the outlet I run now, The Village Ski Shop,” Brian said.
Brian has countless memories of his 25 years at each of Big White and Silver Star.
“It was a privilege to work with pioneers like Cliff Serwa and Doug Mervyn who started from scratch to build the road to Big White and develop the resort. They had incredible energy and spent their evenings raising money from investors. Those early years are hard to replicate. We had so much fun entertaining the guests. People still talk about those early ski lessons. And, what I love about SilverStar is the exceptional combination of Alpine and Nordic. Hat’s off to Mike Duggan, Norm Crerar and John Gow for having that vision. The SilverStar tie in with Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre is stronger than ever. SilverStar is a great destination resort with a special community feeling due to the support of locals.”
As well as CSIA certifications as an instructor, coach and examiner, Brian was a member and coach of the Canadian Demonstration Team at Interski three times in the ’70s, Member of the Board of the CSIA and Chairman of the Ski Marketing Advisory Board to the BC Government from 1977 to 1981. No wonder he was inducted into the CSIA Hall of Fame in 2003.
“It has been a privilege to be involved in every part of the ski industry,” said Brian. “I have been fortunate to work with some great people and am proud of my work as an instructor, ski school director and mentor to many who have gone on to be Level 4 CSIA instructors and coaches.”
What’s next for Brian and Sue?
“We’re still having fun in retail, but the businesses are for sale if anyone is interested,” he says, always up for another adventure.