North·In Depth

Yukon gov't takes steps to remove controversial squatters 'living the dream of millions'

The Yukon government has gone to court to force a self-styled backwoods pioneer "and persons unknown" off the remote parcel of land they've unlawfully claimed as their home.

Simon Tourigny staked a mining claim near Dawson City in 2014, let the claim lapse and built a cabin instead

A 2016 photo of a cabin built by Simon Tourigny on public land near Ensley Creek, Yukon. The photo was taken by a Yukon government officer inspecting the site, and is included in a court petition to force Tourigny to vacate the site, which the government says he has no legal authority to occupy. (Government of Yukon)

The Yukon government has gone to court to force a self-styled backwoods pioneer "and persons unknown" off the remote parcel of land they've unlawfully claimed as their home.

The petition to the Supreme Court of Yukon is the culmination of eight years of wrangling between territorial authorities and Simon Tourigny, over the cabin and other structures Tourigny allegedly built on public land near Ensley Creek, about 25 kilometres up the Yukon River from Dawson City.

"Mr. Tourigny has been notified several times by Yukon Government Officials that his occupation of the Site is unlawful and that he must vacate, remove the cabin and remediate the Site," reads the court petition filed by the territory's Energy, Mines and Resources department, on March 2.

"Mr. Tourigny has acknowledged he has no lawful authority to occupy the Site and has stated that he will continue to pursue his life in the bush with no plans to vacate the site or remove his cabin."

In emails to government officials, and in a letter to the local newspaper in Dawson City last fall (later printed in the Yukon News), Tourigny argues that he is simply pursuing a subsistence lifestyle and being harried by vindictive government officials who don't appreciate his ideals.

In his letter to the newspaper, Tourigny also states that he is "in love" with First Nations culture and wants to learn as much of "the old skills" as possible.

"Every Indigenous person I've ever met seems to genuinely appreciate what I'm doing and our shared love of this land and have helped me on my way to living closer with nature," the letter reads.

Tourigny's cabin is on the traditional territory of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, but the First Nation has not made any public statement about him or his claimed home in the bush. The First Nation also did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

'Literally living the dream'

Tourigny's letter also states that there were then three people living on the site, with three log cabins. Tourigny proudly acknowledged that the cabins were not legal and suggested that he and his companions should have a right to pursue their lifestyle unhindered.

"We simply took responsibility for our own lives and went ahead and built [the cabins]. We are literally living the dream of millions. We are the real thing, an independent, self-sufficient community out in the bush," Tourigny wrote.

"We cut our own firewood, grow vegetables in the forest floor, hunt, trap and forage. We even have our own sawmill. We provide much of our daily needs ourselves with only the occasional trip to town to buy or forage at the dump."

Another structure found by a Yukon government natural resources officer on a 2016 site inspection. "Every Indigenous person I've ever met seems to genuinely appreciate what I'm doing and our shared love of this land and have helped me on my way to living closer with nature," Tourigny wrote. (Government of Yukon)

The letter argues that Tourigny and his fellow squatters are being unreasonably targeted for being "too much of a good example of an alternative way of living," and asks if Canada is "truly a free country."

"Which part of what we are doing is 'unauthorized'? Our cabins or our lifestyles? They won't say, either because they don't know or because the truth cannot be admitted," Tourigny writes.

The letter, which is included among the documents submitted to court by the government, sparked plenty of comment last fall on social media, particularly among Yukoners who were less than sympathetic to Tourigny.

"Ignorance + arrogance = white privilege," wrote one commenter.

Mining claims but no mining

Documents and emails filed to the court tell the story of how Tourigny first settled on the site in 2014, when he was granted a placer mining claim. He obtained another claim in the area a couple of years later.

But according to an affidavit from the Dawson mining recorder, Tourigny never did any legitimate assessment work on the claims as required by Yukon's Placer Mining Act. Instead, he promptly dug himself an outhouse and then built a cabin.

The mining claims, meanwhile, lapsed and the Yukon government refused to renew them. Instead, officials told Tourigny he was unlawfully occupying the land, and that he must remove his cabin.

Similar warnings followed over the next few years as different government branches and officials became involved and Tourigny repeatedly tried, and failed, to argue for his right to occupy the land. 

Logs and brush piled up near Tourigny's cabin in 2016. (Government of Yukon)

Finally, last year, government officials tried again to force things along.

"This file has been significantly delayed for several years, and Mr. Tourigny continues to expand the cabin and developments at the site," reads a June 2021 email between government officials.

Days later, a letter was hand-delivered from the Land Management Branch to Tourigny, demanding that he cease occupying the land by the following month, remove all structures and possessions, and restore the site to its original condition.

As of June 2021, the letter notes, natural resource officers found at the site a cabin, several wooden dog houses, a food cache, outhouse, garden and saw log. Some brush had also been cleared from the site.

"Your unauthorized occupancy has been lengthy and well documented," the letter to Tourigny states.

"Land Management Branch searched its records and has no record of any person holding a form of legal tenure that would authorize the occupation of the site."

'What manner of man are you?'

Tourigny responded a week later with a letter to Matthew Ball, director of the Land Management Branch.   

"What manner of man are you?" Tourigny wrote to Ball.

"When you clock out of your office and go home, in your heart do you believe that you are in the right and I am in the wrong, and that I should leave this wilderness paradise that I have made my home... Can you understand how stressful it is to continuously receive threats demanding that I leave or there will be unpleasant consequences?"

Ball responded on Aug. 4 that his earlier correspondence was "not an opportunity to negotiate staying on the land," and said that the government would come inspect the site soon and then go to court if necessary.

Tourigny wrote to Ball again.

"This land is my home. I will continue to build cabins and live on the land, hunting and trapping. Until the police lay their hands upon me and drag me to jail for living in the bush, I will remain on the land," he wrote.

No phone or internet in the bush

CBC has not yet been able to reach Tourigny. In an email to the government last year he says that communication is slow for him "as I live out in the bush and don't have phone or internet." 

As of Tuesday, Tourigny had not yet filed a response to the government's court petition.

Nobody from Yukon's Land Management Branch agreed to speak to CBC about the case, and the branch offered a written statement instead. It says anybody who wants to build on public land in Yukon "whether it be a log cabin or condominium" must have legal authority to do so. Otherwise, it's considered squatting and the government can apply to the court to have them forcibly removed.

"One of the objectives of our laws and policies is to prevent unplanned and unregulated exclusive occupations that may damage environmental, cultural or other values of public lands," the statement reads.

"We believe it is important that land is managed responsibility and our laws ensure all individuals are treated fairly."

The government is asking for a court summons directing Tourigny and any others to vacate the land, remove everything, and never return to the site. It would also forbid Tourigny from occupying any other Yukon territorial lands without authority.

The petition has not yet been heard in court.

With files from Jackie Hong