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Squatting Into The Future By Stephen Vogler In the late 1970s, when I lived with my family at the Tyrol Lodge, I used to walk alongside a small creek up into the forest above Alta Lake Road. The moss was thick and green on the forest floor, the old-growth trees adorned with lichen, the berry bushes ripe with huckle and blueberries in late summer. A little ways up along the creek, the forest opened just slightly and a tiny log cabin sat in the most ideal setting imaginable. The view was of Whistler Mountain, the creek gurgled in the background and inside lived a squatter. I was often invited in for a coffee or a smoke of something and to talk with whoever happened to be living there at the time. I remember the filtered light that shone in through the skylight, the rounded slab of wood for the kitchen counter and the tree stump carved into a chair out front. The cabin was so much a part of the forest that if you were busy picking berries you could walk right past it without noticing. Those who inhabited it lived just as unassumingly on the land. They kept the place in good shape, changed very little and passed the cabin on to someone else when it was time to move on. The transfer involved no deeds or legal fees — just a few friendly words and a handshake. Squatting was a common way of life in Whistler in those days. Alta Lake Road harboured many squatters' sites. So did the Cheakamus River near Function Junction, Fitzsimmons Creek behind the village, Soo Valley at the north end of Green Lake and almost any other place that was just outside the borders of the established parts of town. Squatting was a fringe activity. It allowed people to live here while they considered their next move or saved up enough money to make a more permanent commitment to the place. In Whistler this fringe element created an interesting underside to the established resort that was taking shape. Living outside of the mainstream allowed a kind of counter culture to develop among the squatters. It allowed healthy, alternative ideas and ways of living to find a place in the valley, and to lend some spirit to the community. Squatting required character, resourcefulness and hard work to survive a West Coast winter. The ski bum squatters from the ’60s and ’70s were also a kind of cultural continuum from the earlier trappers, prospectors and loggers who eked out a similar pioneer existence in the woods. If Whistler has any true culture, I think it grew from these people who lived close to the land, but on the fringes of the mainstream work-a-day world. In 1979 the provincial and municipal governments saw to it that squatters would no longer live in Whistler. They flew over the valley with helicopters to spot the cabins, and quickly followed with eviction notices and demolition crews. With progress getting into full stride, squatters were deemed an undesirable element in town. They were accused of leaving messes in the forest and polluting the valley. While most of the occupied squatters' cabins I saw were well looked after and tidy, what the government employees left behind was anything but. Their mission was to make the cabins unliveable, and they didn't see fit to go beyond their job description. Some cabins were burned just enough to become uninhabitable and left behind in a mess of charred building debris. Others were cut up by chainsaws, winched apart and left to rot like tortured souls in the forest. The obvious irony in this chapter of Whistler's history is that the biggest problem now facing the resort is providing housing for seasonal employees. The current situation brings out a hypocrisy that lies at the heart of Whistler today. The same progress that drove the "undesirable element" out of their cabins 20 years ago, now needs that element to keep the economic wheels of the town turning. Whistler still wants those young people for the cheap labour force they provide, but not for anything else they might have to offer. (A few hardy souls are still managing to squat in Whistler, but the level of secrecy required makes it more difficult than ever to create a decent home). While their predecessors 20 years ago were able to exist on the underbelly of Whistler until they were ready to establish themselves more fully, today's young visitors have little choice but to head out on the same treadmill they arrived on. It's making Whistler feel less like a town with fresh ideas and a vibrant culture, and more like a poorly oiled economic machine. And this finally brings me to the idea I've been waiting so patiently to present. While ruminating over these issues, it suddenly hit me in a blinding flash of light that Whistler's housing problem, as well as its ailing soul and spirit, might all be remedied by one simple plan: a new squatters' community. Now before my idea is dismissed as unsound or even foolish, I'm going to back it up with some scholarly research to give it the legitimacy it deserves. In 1971, Jim Lotz of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, authored a study on squatters for the Canadian Research Centre for Anthropology. Lotz points out that in 4th century Rome, the constitutions of Valentinian, Arcadius and Theodosius permitted squatters to cultivate deserted fields in what is now Italy. For a more modern example, he points to the crofters and squatters in north and west Scotland who "have the tacit approval of the local people when they enclose a portion of the common land, or bring waste under cultivation." And this: "The individual who nibbled away at the wasteland, and extended the sown was obviously doing something that was economically and socially useful, even though it was illegal." Even more applicable to Whistler's situation is the study Lotz did of the squatters in Whitehorse, Yukon. He begins by saying that squatters are not considered a problem in the Yukon unless they become too visible or are located on land that is needed for other purposes. He writes: "The squatter locations combined accessibility to the facilities and services of the city with a degree of invisibility. The squatters served the city, providing a labour force that could not be housed at low cost elsewhere, and the city served the squatters. The relationship was mutually rewarding, and fairly stable over a period of years." The Whitehorse study provides ample evidence that a squatters' community can exist within, and be beneficial to, an established town. Like the previous generation of squatters in Whistler, the new squatting community could build their cabins inconspicuously in the forest. This would provide the needed degree of invisibility and also allow them to act as stewards to some of the remaining forested lands in the valley. Using new technologies like solar panels and composting toilets they could have even less impact on the environment than their 1960s counterparts. The only possible cause for concern is that squatters cabins could lower the property value of nearby homes. But under closer scrutiny, this depreciation of housing prices could be a positive change, allowing long-time squatters to move into the established housing market and make way for new arrivals in town. Various sites spring to mind for Whistler's new squatting communities, but one which I think would be particularly appropriate is the area between Lost Lake and the $500,000 condominiums which ring the C.P. Golf Course. As the Whitehorse study recommends, this area is close to amenities yet well hidden within thick forest. A squatters' settlement in this part of town could also inject some local culture into the Benchlands area, which is sorely lacking in that department. Another good reason for squatters in this area is that if Intrawest ever tried to encroach on the lake shore and the nudist docks with monster condominiums there would be people in place to protect what needs protecting. While the idea of new squatters' communities in Whistler seems crazy at first, the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. Local politicians would finally have a solution to the housing problem. The mountains and other local businesses wouldn't have so much trouble finding accommodation for their staff. Retailers and restaurateurs in town would benefit from the greater disposable income among Whistler's work force. And most importantly, everyone would have a home. Squatting needn't necessarily be made legal in Whistler. In fact, that might strip it of some of its mystique. The powers that be could simply turn a blind eye and allow squatters to exist in the valley under a loose set of guidelines. Surely the pillars of the community would see the sense in this. After all, many of them began their days here in squatters' cabins.