British Columbia

Squamish van dwellers face possible ban in bylaw vote

A bylaw amendment before Squamish District council Tuesday night could create a blanket ban on sleeping in vehicles, as it would prohibit sleeping overnight in public spaces.

A bylaw amendment before Squamish District council could create a blanket ban on sleeping in vehicles

Thomasina Pidgeon and her daughter Cedar pictured in May 2019 in the van in which they live. Pidgeon co-directs the Vehicle Residents of Squamish advocacy group. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Update: District of Squamish council amended Tuesday night's agenda to remove adoption of the camping bylaw. The district says it will pause the adoption.

Work is underway to review the policy, the district said, and staff is anticipated to come back to council with a "comprehensive plan" at a future date. A previous version of this story appears below.


A bylaw amendment up for consideration before Squamish District council Tuesday evening could create a blanket ban on sleeping in vehicles.

The bylaw amendment doesn't have the words "van" or "vehicle" in it, but members of the van-dwelling community in Squamish understand it to be a blanket ban on their way of life because it would prohibit sleeping overnight in public spaces within the district. 

The first three readings of the amendment passed during the previous council meeting last week, with Mayor Karen Elliott and three councillors voting for the readings, and three councillors opposing them.

"Basically, if this bylaw passes, they're basically not giving us any choice but to practice civil disobedience, because we're going to be breaking the law," said Thomasina Pidgeon, who lives in a van with her daughter and co-directs the Vehicle Residents of Squamish advocacy group.

"I think what they're doing is really divisive, putting one side of the community against the other — It's really narrow-minded," Pidgeon said. 

Last year, the issue came to a head with council considering a similar ban on people living in vehicles, but there was strong opposition — and compromise. The prohibition was limited to certain zones that would be enforceable by bylaw enforcement officers.

This amendment removes the enforcement zones, making camping throughout the district illegal, unless in specifically designated camping areas.

"A person must not: (a) camp in any public place; or (b) sleep overnight in any public place unless designated a camping place," the amendment reads.

The staff report, presented July 21, said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the district saw a sudden increase in people living in vehicles in urban areas.

"These congregations of vehicles are causing public health risks due to the absence of sanitation infrastructure and pose a risk to the vehicle dwellers as well as the public," staff reported.

Pidgeon said she didn't observe the same thing.

She said, anecdotally, that she saw a significant decrease in the number of people in Squamish living in the vehicles, though it's increased as the months have gone on.

She said she still thinks it's fewer people than last year.

Thomasina Pidgeon and her daughter Cedar lean against the van they call home in Squamish, B.C., in a photo from May 2019. Pidgeon is concerned about a bylaw amendment before district council that could lead to a ban on living in vehicles. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

'Community isn't built on exclusivity'

Pidgeon said a permit system could be put in place, allowing van dwellers to stay a night or two in a given place before moving on — something that would let officers enforce anyone outstaying their welcome.

She said it appears to be a cultural schism between the people who have lived in the community for years, and those taking part in a process of gentrification. 

"Basically what used to be the outdoor recreational capital of Canada can be viewed as the outdoor gentrification capital of Canada," Pidgeon said.

"Community isn't built on exclusivity, it's built on including people."

She said she's hopeful the bylaw amendment doesn't pass, but she expects it will.

Pidgeon said if she gets a ticket, she's going to fight it, because she believes it's a struggle over freedom and the ability to choose one's own lifestyle in a housing market that makes affording a place to live extremely challenging.

Mayor Karen Elliott declined an interview request from CBC News about the bylaw amendment.

Council is set to vote on the amendment at a meeting Tuesday evening.


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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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