Notes on the Tofino caste system

by greg blanchette
(as published in Tofino Time magazine, January 2013)

A long line of distinguished experts has shone its attention on Tofino, as a textbook example of one social phenomenon or another. I recently had brunch with noted “Podunk anthropologist” Norbash D. Hoke, who has devoted his considerable academic career to studying what he calls “end-of-the-road evolution.”

Hoke’s enduring fascination with our little town, he says, stems from the powerful caste system governing our supposedly laid-back social structure. This hierarchy, researchers agree, operates on several layers simultaneously, based on specific criteria and also on the person doing the ranking. But that’s about all they agree on.

The Tofino caste system is fantastically complex to map out — Hoke has three grad students and a supercomputer working on it at the moment — but also seems to be intuitively grasped by every Tofitian over the age of three. Hoke believes the system went ballistically complex from social shocks laid down during the town’s transition days in the 1980s — shocks that continue today.

Birthplace, for example, was one simple way in which Toftians used to distinguish themselves: having been born in town once held considerable cachet. But with the closing of the hospital’s maternity ward, the born-here contingent is shrinking and its status is both increasing and evaporating. An ever more mobile and transient population means less worth is placed on the accident of birth, and more on one’s present-day place in Tofino society.

Hoke picks the remains of an egg salad sandwich from his flowing salt-and-pepper beard as he continues his taxonomy. “An obvious subclass of birthplace is residence time,” he says. “The longer one has lived in Tofino, naturally, the more status one carries.” Exotic origins, like Germany or Kentucky, confer extra merit. Hoke lowers his voice to add, with obvious glee, “The lowest rung of all is reserved for those who immigrate from Ontario!”

Asked about the highest Tofino caste, Hoke is unhesitating: “Membership in the Surfer class confers an unmistakable ‘cool’ that allows one to look down one’s nose at everybody else.”

Being of Surfer caste is self-declared, he says, demonstrated through lingo (e.g. “dude” or “gnarly”) and appearance (baggy shorts, sun-bleached dreads, wearing a wetsuit in public). Strangely, actual surfing prowess on the water has no measurable bearing on status — it’s all about attitude.

But this is where it gets complicated. Though Surfers are at the very apex of the Tofino social pyramid, paradoxically, nobody else gives a hoot — which means their social standing is near zero.

“Everything wraps in on itself in Tofino,” Hoke says, gesturing animatedly. Surfers are simultaneously the cream and the dregs. Anybody who drives an SUV is both upper crust and scum. Anybody who owns a house on Chesterman is both envied and insufferable. “So complex,” he says, shaking his head with the air of a man with much work to do. His research recently adopted multi-dimensional string theory, trying to explain it all.

Though nobody is crass enough to admit it openly, Hoke continues, economic status is still one of Tofino’s primary ranking criteria. Property owners obviously rate higher than mere renters (at least in their own minds), having triumphed in a punishing housing market. Absentee owners of second homes — a cripplingly large Tofino demographic — rank high on the success ladder, but lack of social connection cuts heavily into their local status.

Oddly, couch-surfers with no fixed address possess a certain mythic aura for their ability to survive, ninja-like, in a hostile accommodation market. And unwashed, bush-dwelling Poole’s Land residents, the Tofino equivalent of the famous “untouchables,” turn out to be absolutely essential to the town’s very conception of itself.

The “Hokester,” as his students affectionately call him, goes on (and on and on, if you let him) about the intricacies of the Tofino caste system. Skateboarders, kayak guides, summer staff, district employees all have their place in the fluctuating schema. First Nations status is rising fast, gluten intolerance is hot, guitars no longer get the chicks, and environmentalists are in the basement.

As Hoke hands me the bill for our brunch, it is apparent that no meal is long enough to sum up this ever-changing town we live in. All we can do is our best, to get along and understand each other.


Tofino writer/poet/performer greg blanchette (oddly enough, of no fixed address) considers himself a shrewd social commentator, a claim scoffed at by many. His musings are available at aimless1.wordpress.com. Correct him at aimless1@mailcan.com.

3 thoughts on “Notes on the Tofino caste system

  1. Great read – It is an extremely complex social scene…… I wonder where the owners of the shore fit in to all that! Apparently that development increased all other (nearby) home owners’ tax bracket as it’s based on the average value of homes in a certain radius! Way to go millionaires!

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