British Columbia

Wild-camping crackdown threatens 'nomadic' lifestyle, says Squamish van-dweller

The district insists the bylaw is aimed at seasonal campers, not locals who live in their vehicles year-round. But van-dwellers fear it could threaten their homes and way of life.

People who live in vehicles in the district fear a proposed bylaw could leave them with hefty fines

Thomasina Pidgeon and her daughter Cedar share the fold-out bed in the converted minivan Pidgeon bought for $800. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

A group of people who live in vehicles near Squamish, B.C., are wary of a new draft district bylaw that prohibits wild camping on public land.

People caught wild camping could be fined $5,000, according to the proposed bylaw, which intends to crack down on irresponsible campers who leave behind garbage and human waste.

The district insists the bylaw is only a draft and it's aimed at seasonal campers, not locals who live in their vehicles year-round.

But van-dwellers fear it could threaten their homes and way of life.

The district estimates that about 40 people live in their vehicles near Squamish, while locals who live in cars say that figure is closer to 200 or 300.

Thomasina Pidgeon and her daughter Cedar lean on the van they call home in Squamish, B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

'It's pretty homey'

Thomasina Pidgeon says she lives in her "camperized" Toyota Sienna minivan with her 12-year-old daughter Cedar. She says she's chosen this lifestyle for 20 years.

"In my blood I've always been kind of nomadic and it just allows me to be that way," said Pidgeon. "It's very small. I would actually like to upgrade but it's not financially an option. It's pretty homey."

She said the proposed bylaw to ban car camping in most places made her nervous, so she decided to start a petition against it — which has attracted hundreds of signatures within days.

Pidgeon believes the bylaw — which heads to the District of Squamish council next Tuesday for first reading — is aimed at anybody sleeping in a tent or vehicle on public or crown land in the district, which is more than 100 square kilometres in size.

She said she was approached by a bylaw officer on Thursday and was told that the rules stipulate where people can and can't camp.

"[The bylaw officer] also directed me to social services, but when I said I am self-sufficient, her response was, 'well, you can't be self-sufficient if you live in a van,'" she said.

"[The district is] telling me I can't live in my van unless I drive really far out of town. It's an infringement on human rights," she added.

Thomasina Pidgeon, an avid climber, has lived near Squamish in her vehicle for almost 20 years. (Thomasina Pidgeon)

'Just trying to find the balance': District

The District of Squamish said the proposal is not aimed at locals living "peacefully" in their vehicles.

"There is a segment of people that visit our community that choose to live in their vans. … We are trying to respect that but also in return asking them to respect our community by following some leave-no-trace camping rules," Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott told CBC.

"We're just trying to find the balance between supporting the visitors that come to our community and also meeting the needs of our residents.

"We love having visitors ... we're just trying to take care of the small minority that are causing problems."

Elliott says the some wild campers are noisy and some leave behind human waste and garbage, which can attract bears.

Rufio West is one of the people organizing members of the van-dwelling community in Squamish, some of whom share concerns over a proposed Squamish bylaw targeting wild camping. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

'Seems dangerous to me'

Some van-dwellers understand where the district is coming from, but think there needs to be a better way to distinguish locals from visitors.

"When I read the text of the bylaw … it covers things in very broad strokes, which seems dangerous to me," said Rufio West with the Vehicle Residents of Squamish Advocacy Group.

"One of the solutions we've discussed … is a permit-based solution," he said.

"Maybe you have to pay a nominal fee … something small to represent the amount of space you're taking up — which isn't very much — and to say hey, this person has a right to be in a certain location."

Pidgeon says she plans to fight any fines and keep living her life on wheels.

The district of Squamish is moving to ban camping or sleeping on public lands to try to control garbage and other problems. A few areas are exempted. (District of Squamish)


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip?

With files from Rafferty Baker