KAMLOOPS, B.C. — It’s taken Tony Smith two years to build his cabin.
He dragged the logs from the bush with a yoke and the strength of his legs. Then he and his wife Judy lifted each one of the 450-kilogram beasts into place with an old boat winch.
For the couple, the cabin will be a massive improvement from the three-by-3.5-metre canvas wall prospector’s tent they have lived in on Greenstone Mountain for the past two years.
“It will be nice to have a wall that doesn’t move,” Smith said, looking every bit the proud craftsman. “This is my home.”
So he said it was like being kicked in the chest when two government workers showed up Sunday evening and told him he had 30 days to tear it down.
The two officials, a conservation officer and a compliance officer with B.C.’s Integrated Land Management Bureau, rolled in and told them someone had complained about their set-up. They told the Smiths they would also have to pull up their tent.
“They were civil,” Smith said. “He said it was policy. He said we couldn’t be here. That’s all he would say. That’s all he ever said.”
It’s a long path that led Tony, 63, and Judy, 53, to the small landing off the Dairy Lake forest service road 14 kilometres up Greenstone Mountain.
They married 17 years ago and have lived and worked in a number of B.C. communities. He’s a mechanic by trade and she’s worked in various fields, including social work.
Several years ago, Judy’s health deteriorated — Tony describes her as a “fragile diabetic” who struggles daily to maintain her blood sugar levels — and she couldn’t work any more.
He said the stress of trying to keep a job and look after his wife at the same time was too much. He chose to stay at home to care for her, as he could not afford to pay for a home nurse.
The couple did their best to live on Judy’s disability pension, but after rent and utilities there was nothing left. The only rentals they could afford were often dirty and run-down. Landlords did nothing to fix what wasn’t working. They tried to find social housing. They were offered waiting lists.
“The system and the support services were never really there when we needed them,” he said.
After a couple of years of living poorly, Smith said he “started looking.” He cruised the backcountry until he found the overgrown road leading into the trees to the small knoll overlooking the valley below.
There, he and Judy staked out the prospector’s tent with its canvas walls and wood stove and single bed. They laid down a wooden floor and started cutting firewood.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I do to make sure I had heat and a reasonably clean place to live?”’ he said. “I’ve worked in the bush before. I’ve lived like this.”
“This is it.”
Without rent to pay, the couple’s income goes further. The money is tight and requires careful managing, but both say they have just enough to get by.
It’s tough living, especially in the winter. They have to shovel their 500 metres of road to the main road by hand so that Tony can get his old Ford truck out to town to get supplies once a month.
But Judy says her health has improved, although she can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the lack of stress, she said, or the cleaner living. She still has diabetes and tests her blood regularly, but she does not have the same problems she once did.
They are happy, they said, with a better quality of life than they had living in Kamloops. They have more food, are warmer and feel more secure.
And then the officials showed up.
Tony Smith said he’s He stands on the roof of the cabin and points out the impressive view, with Crown forests stretching as far as anyone can see.
“With all of that space, I don’t know why we can’t stay here,” he said.
Officials with the Integrated Land Management Bureau could not be reached for comment.
Kamloops lawyer John Drayton said there are no so-called “squatter’s rights” in B.C. and there never has been.
According to the law, the Smiths have no right to build a cabin as they have done and the government has every right to tear it down.
If the Smiths press the point, Drayton said it’s likely the government would seek an injunction and eventually call on the RCMP to enforce it.
Drayton said he’s not so sure the government can demand they remove their tent, referring to a recent B.C. Supreme Court judgment dealt with the City of Victoria’s bylaws governing “tenter’s rights” in city parks.
That case may have some bearing on the Smiths’ situation, although it’s difficult to know how it would be interpreted if applied to these facts.
º“They have no right to construct a cabin on Crown land,” Drayton said, “although many people do it, sometimes for many years, because they go undetected.”
“They do it by the grace of God, for as long as they go undetected.”