Moving on

🕔Mar 09, 2006

Logs and floating debris pounded against Alexander MacKenzie’s house during the big storm in the winter of 2003. The home, which stood on pilings in the tidal flats along the western fringe of Queen Charlotte City, was destroyed along with all of MacKenzie’s belongings.

The community came together to help him rebuild his place on the waterfront, but now he faces the possibility of losing that one too. He and other residents of the makeshift foreshore settlement have become the flotsam found at the end of an era when people were encouraged to make Crown land their home.

Gone are the days when a settler could arrive at a site, slap up a shack—or more commonly a log home—and call it theirs. Those who have dared are often called squatters and the term has a not-too-nice ring to it.

Alexander MacDonald, a photographer who has lived in the community of beached float houses and shacks in Queen Charlotte for 11 years, says “squatter” is one of the most polite things he’s been called.

But squatting is only a more derogatory term for homesteading; many northwestern families began their lives in the region this way.

In the pioneering days of the early 1900s, pre-emptions were offered throughout British Columbia. If a man was willing to stay for five years, these tracts of Crown land, often as large as 160 acres, cost little more than the effort it took to clear them. Another wave of homesteaders arrived in the late 1960s. These back-to-the-landers, who settled along the riverways or in isolated mountain valleys, would build or take up residence in any old shack they found. Many have now moved on, or leased-to-purchase land if they decided to stay.

But back in Queen Charlotte, the age of the squatter never ended.

About 15 people live along the strip of tidal flats known as Hooterville on one side of a road transecting the area and Frog Flats on the other.

The origin of the picturesque community or shantytown, depending on your point of view, dates back more than 20 years, when the local government in Queen Charlotte asked those living in houseboats tied to the town dock to move on. A motley crew of cabins built on barges shoved off and landed on the waterfront at the western edge of what is now B.C.’s newest municipality.

The community has a reputation. Lots of partying and chicanery have taken place on the flats over the years. Even the community names point to a certain thumbing of the nose at mainstream conventions. Hooterville was apparently named by a resident whose wife was well-endowed, but that’s just one story. Frog Flats, it’s said, was so named because quite a few Quebecois lived there at one time.

About 15 years back in the colourful history of the area, residents were asked to enter into lease arrangements with the province, allowing them to live on and build improvements on their parcel of Crown land. Most have been paying their leases in good faith, and don’t consider themselves squatters at all. Some have sunk a lot of their savings into their patch of waterfront, even building respectable homes, and say they are legally entitled to live in their cabins and that’s that.

But recent changes to these arrangements have made these people feel far less certain.

To their consternation, two years ago when their five-year leases were up for renewal, residents received letters from the Crown stating they may be asked to remove their improvements and leave.

Now they have an 18-month lease that expires in June of 2006—and a lot of concerns. Gibson has been busy gathering the group together to fight for more security in the face of the looming deadline.

MacDonald was never happy with the terms in the first place. He says years ago staff at BC Lands in Smithers (now Integrated Land Management) assured him by telephone his tenure was secure, but when he read the contract, he realized he could be kicked out at any time.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe words are stronger than paper,” he says. To this day he hasn’t paid, saying he won’t sign a contract with a government body he feels has misled him. MacDonald has another take on the lands issue as well.

“I don’t believe it’s Crown land anyway. It’s Haida land,” he says. He went down another path for his right to occupy and received permission from Chief Skidegate Dempsey Collinson. “If the day ever comes when he says I’m not welcome, I’m outta here,” says MacDonald.

Until then, MacDonald says he may be squatting in the face of the government, but he stays as a guest of the Haida.

The concept of aboriginal title shifts the discussion of squatting to a whole different level. Some would refer to all non-native settlers as squatters.

In Canada’s early days, aboriginal people were moved off their territory and herded into reserves across the country to make way for the incoming pioneers. An example from the Northwest illustrates how devastating this practice often was.

After the Boer War, veterans were offered Bulkley Valley land. Although they weren’t supposed to displace anyone, Smithers-based author Sheila Peters writes in her book, Canyon Creek: A Script, that the settlers would come in late spring to scout good acreages, just when the salmon were running and the Wet’suwet’en farmers were away from their homes.

She describes the fury felt by one family of Wet’suwet’en farmers who were burned out of their cabins to make way for a returning soldier wanting their land. With winter fast approaching they were homeless.

Yvonne Lattie, a Gitxsan woman from Hazelton, is twisting the paradigm once more. She is building a cabin of her own in an isolated mountain valley along the headwaters of the Skeena. The land is disputed. Her house group, Gwininitxw of the wolf clan, claims the area as part of their territory. The provincial government hasn’t recognized their ownership and would like to see a road built through the wild mountain passes to reach abundant mineral and forestry resources north of Hazelton.

Lattie says the cabin will help prove her people’s continuous occupation of the territory. She spends the summers in the area, known as Tommy Jack Pass, with volunteers who are helping resurrect an old trapline trail that continues all the way to the Sicintine River. They’d love to see more people in the alpine, but on recreational rather than mineral exploration trips.

“With the forestry incursions in areas now, it’s hard to have a place where they won’t bug you,” says Bulkley Valley resident Paul Glover. When he first came to the area in 1975, he lived in an old miner’s cabin near treeline on Hudson Bay Mountain. Then he and his young family moved to a small cabin in the Suskwa Valley, 80 kilometres north of Smithers. The cabin was built near the Babine Trail, connecting Hazelton to Babine Lake, and they were given permission to live there by the man who had built the place.

In the following years, they built a log house of their own, but when a conservation officer noticed the family while checking out some logging in the area, they were forced to formalize their living arrangement with the province.

Glover is satisfied with this. He pays property taxes and an annual fee to maintain his legal tenure.

What really bothers Kevin Gibson, who has lived in a 200-square foot building in Frog Flats for 16 years, is the section of his lease where it says he can be evicted with no reasonable cause.

Gibson says there have been various efforts to encourage the residents to move on.

A few years ago, the BC Lands department (now Integrated Resource Management) told residents they’d have to move to a small subdivision being cut out of the bush on land up behind their houses.

None of the community members made a move and when shell middens were found during initial site development, the Haida put a stop to further construction.

Then they were offered $25,000 parcels even farther back from the tidal flats.

Gibson says it isn’t realistic to expect people on the beach to do that.

“If we were going to buy an empire and do that we’d have done it already.

The reason we’re here on the beach is we can’t afford that.”

He has few possessions: a small bed, a wood stove to heat his home, and an amazing waterfront view. He chooses to live simply and with all the concern about greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and other pollution, he thinks the government should respect that.

Further rumblings from within the new municipal government in Queen Charlotte are underway, says Gibson, who expects the residents will hear more in the coming months.

“I don’t think Crown land should be administered in this way. They’ve convinced us we have a home; now they are coming along and pulling the rug out from under us.”

To read more about the life of a modern-day homesteader, pick up Wilderness Mother by Deanna Kawatski, published by Whitecap Books in 1994. Kawatski lived for 13 years in a remote mountain valley near Stewart.