Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

History of Squatting

Jan 24, 2015

This past week the news media here in Vancouver have been reporting on the imminent destruction of one of the last, if not the last, squatter cabins that at one time dotted the shoreline of Burrard Inlet. Local jazz legend Al Neil has occupied the cabin out in the Dollarton area of North Vancouver since 1966, latterly with his companion the artist Carole Itter. But a developer wants to build new condos on the site so the Port has evicted Neil and Itter and is set to demolish the cabin.

The story evokes the important role played by squatters in the history of Greater Vancouver. I wrote about this several years ago for the Encyclopedia of BC and I thought it might be topical to repost an updated version of that item here.


Today (July 28, 2009) marks the centenary of the birth of the British-born writer Malcolm Lowry who spent some of his most productive years -- from 1940 to 1954 -- living with his wife Margerie in a squatter's shack on the north shore of Burrard Inlet at Dollarton. It was there that he finished his masterwork, Under the Volcano, and much else besides.

Lowry is the Vancouver area's most famous squatter but hardly its only one. Squatting has been a way of life along the shores of Burrard Inlet since the beginning of white settlement. Sometimes squatters occupy structures that are owned by someone else, but I am thinking more of people who build their own homes on land that they do not, or cannot, own.

(First Nations cannot be called squatters though once the authorities forcibly removed them to reserves the individuals who stayed behind were said to be squatting. A prominent example was "Aunt Sally," the last Aboriginal resident of Stanley Park who lived at Whoi Whoi (Lumberman's Arch) until she died in 1923.)

Technically, "Gassy Jack" Deighton, founder of Gastown, was a squatter. He arrived with his barrel of whiskey from New Westminister in September 1867 and built his saloon on land which was not formally surveyed and sold until 1870.

As Jean Barman reveals in her book, Stanley Park’s Secret, families began settling at Brockton Point at the present location of the Nine O’Clock gun in the 1860s. These were a mixture of First Nations, Portuguese and others and they established a stable little community of fishers and millhands. But officials did not want them in the park. City and federal governments launched eviction efforts in the courts in 1923 and eventually won a favourable verdict. They were evicted in 1931.

Deadman’s Island, the present site of HMCS Discovery, was a separate community of squatters dating back to the 1890s. In 1898 the federal government gave Seattle lumberman Theodore Ludgate a 25-year lease on the island in return for a promise to build a sawmill. The city, which felt it owned the island, was angry and in 1899 the province took the feds to court, claiming ownership on behalf of the city. In 1906 the Privy Council ruled for the feds, whereupon Ludgate began evicting the 150 squatters who had been living on the island. Violence ensued -- the so-called Battle of Deadman`s Island -- and in the end Ludgate abandoned his plans. In 1930 the city Parks Board took over the island and a year later evicted the remaining squatters.

The story of Sam Greer is an example of how disagreements about land tenure sometimes blurred the line between settler and squatter. Greer “purchased” 160 acres of beachfront in Kitsilano in 1882 and lived there with his wife and daughter in a small cabin. Kits Beach was then known as Greer’s Beach. But the province claimed to own the land and in 1884 granted it to the CPR which attempted to evict the Greers. In 1890 or 1891 a sheriff arrived to remove them and Greer shot and wounded him. After negotiations, Greer surrendered and eventually went to jail for a brief period.

The 1890s saw a proliferation of squatters’ shanties along the edges of False Creek and Burrard Inlet. Robert Macdonald in his history of the city, Making Vancouver 1863-1913, calls these shacks “the most potent symbol of social marginalization.” The term shack referred to a cabin, a floathouse or a foreshore cottage on pilings. In 1894 one source identified 364 shacks along the Vancouver foreshore. The business elite did not like them and the issue was a contentious one in the city during its early history.

Another small colony of tent squatters sprang up in 1909 on the beach at the foot of Alma Street. This community, which had a population of about 300 by 1912, had its own elected council and named streets. “This is what I call the ideal mode of living,” said one of the residents, shortly before the city removed them all in August 1912.

During the Depression there were several clusters of squatters homes around the shores of the inlet. One was in False Creek on the south shore near Burrard Bridge. This area was known as Bennettville, after the Canadian prime minister at the time. During the 1950s there was a typhoid scare, then a murder, prompting removal of the waterfront residents in the late 1950s.

With the onset of the Depression, Vancouver was swamped by unemployed transients looking for work and social assistance. The situation worsened in the spring of 1931 when the City reduced its relief payments for single men. By June there were several “jungles,” ramshackle hobo communities, scattered around the east end – on Burrard Inlet, in the railyards of the False Creek Flats, under the Georgia viaduct. City authorities put an end to this outburst of squatting when they ordered all of these communities destroyed in September 1931 following a typhoid scare.

There were other communities in Burrard Inlet. For instance, at Brighton Beach near the foot of Renfrew there were some 20 cabins, and farther east between the Iron Workers’ Memorial Bridge and Willingdon Avenue in Burnaby there were about 130 squatters. Indeed, in 1949 there were 866 shacks along the foreshore, reflecting the post-war housing shortage in the city. Most of the waterfront “shackers” were evicted by the Harbours Board in 1959.

On the north side of the inlet, around Roche Point in Cates Park, there were about 90 more shacks, including the one in which Malcolm Lowry lived, the one occupied for so long by Al Neil and Carole Itter and others associated with poets Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy. Some of these were burned by the District of North Vancouver in 1958 but others survived into the 1970s, including a community of hippies at Maplewood Flats.

The point is that squatters have been a part of the urban scene in Vancouver for a long time. The term is often used in a pejorative sense, but as often as not squatters, despite their marginal lifestyle, have been productive members of the community, holding jobs, raising families and, in the case of Neil, Itter and others, making art.

An irony of the Neil/Itter eviction is that in 2012 the District of North Vancouver installed a work by Vancouver artist Ken Lum at the Maplewood Flats. Titled “from shangri-la to shangri-la,” the installation consists of scale replicas of three squatters shacks. So while actual cabins are being destroyed, replicas are being celebrated.