Vancouver liveaboards are fighting for safe harbour and their way of life

Feeling the squeeze of the city's housing market, these boat-dwellers don't want to move ashore

By Diane Selkirk

Randy van Eyk rows between the shore and his anchored boat. He and other members of the False Creek liveaboard community are just barely holding on in Vancouver — one of the most expensive cities in the world. (Photo: Kathleen Hinkel) 

Did we lose a pirate?” That was the question circulating last June among a community of people who live on their boats in Vancouver’s False Creek harbour. The coast guard had found a dead man and his boat floating off a beach just 10 kilometres away. The liveaboards grew concerned when photos of the skipperless boat being towed to shore were posted to the group’s Facebook page.

The man, whose name no one could quite remember, had last been seen aboard his pretty blue-and-white sailboat inside False Creek — an anchorage that is home to a shrinking community of voyagers, artists, scruffy dreamers and self-described pirates. Reportedly, the man had told another boater that his 14-day anchoring permit had run out. “They set us up to die at sea in storm by deporting us without just cause, due process or safe alternative,” Randy van Eyk, one of the group’s most vocal members, wrote on Facebook at the time.

Van Eyk was referring to the fact that boaters require a permit to anchor in False Creek 14 days out of 30 in summer and 21 out of 40 in winter. Once they use up their days, they are required to move their boats, which forces them into exposed waters. Without a permit, the boat owners risk a fine if they stay in the protected harbour. But they risk their lives and homes if they have to head out to open waters in rough weather.

Whether the skipper died from suspicious causes, illness, accident or civic failure is a question the liveaboards have yet to learn the answer to. What his death did confirm was their vulnerability. As boat dwellers, they’re just barely holding on in one of the most expensive cities in the world. False Creek has become ground zero of a quietly simmering maritime battle that’s flaring up all along British Columbia’s coast, and the pirates are taking a scruffy stand.

“I think the city would be happiest if we’d all just disappear.” The speaker is a weathered looking 40-something man dressed in a faded-yellow raincoat and a battered baseball hat. On a rainy day last October, I watch him row ashore from his anchored boat, climb from his dinghy onto the rocky beach and carefully pull the little grey boat above the high-tide line. As he unloads two empty water jugs and a bag of recycling, I ask if he’ll talk to me.

“I won’t tell you my name. It’s too easy for them to make my life miserable,” he says before we sit on a park bench. The “they” he’s referring to are the authorities: “The police, the province, the park board, the city, the federal government — they’re all to blame. None of them care. Whether we sail away, sink or wash up dead on a beach, it’s all the same to them.”

He moved onto the water over a decade ago. He finds living on a small sailboat offers him the perfect lifestyle — he can work in construction but still take off sailing and fishing when the city gets on his nerves. “It’s a good way to live,” he says. “I don’t need much. I think that’s what bugs them; I live a peaceful life in tune with nature and not some consumer-driven life in a sterile box.”

He points across the harbour at one of the new buildings — where a condo can cost more than $6 million. The inlet is quiet today, but on a sunny weekend people buzz around the anchored boats with kayaks, paddle boards and row boats while the harbour-side trail, which encircles the inlet, is filled with people enjoying the urban parks, expensive marinas and trendy restaurants.

The liveaboards, many living at subsistence levels on smaller, older boats, are decidedly out of place in this upscale setting. And they feel they’re fighting for their lives in what’s become the most controversial anchorage in the region. Some even rafted their boats together last November to protest the 14-day anchorage limits. “Well first, there’s nowhere left for us to go,” the liveaboard in the ball cap tells me. “And second, a safe harbour is a maritime right. We have a right to be here.”

The liveaboards have witnessed a lot of change in False Creek. When the floating village first took anchor more than 50 years ago, the inlet was an industrial waterway of old docks and marine services. Over the years, hundreds more boats appeared — some were people’s homes, but many had absentee or lax owners and became abandoned wrecks. The result was a visual and environmental mess. As Vancouver gentrified and then prepared to welcome the world to the 2010 Winter Olympics, the pressure to remove the anchored boats mounted.

Citing safety concerns, boating congestion problems and the waterway’s general aesthetic in 2006, Vancouver sought a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the federal government, which had jurisdiction over the harbour. This allowed the city to put restrictions on the boaters. “I think that it is improper that [liveaboards] continue to stay there [and] ignore our standards around pollution and sewage treatment,” former Vancouver councillor Anne Roberts told CBC at the time.

But liveaboards say there’s an irony in the city blaming them for the pollution when urban storm drains release sewage into the inlet after heavy rains.

Despite this argument, the situation followed a well-worn path that’s familiar to poverty activists in cities throughout North America. Rather than federal and municipal authorities working together with the community to clean up, they used the threat of prosecution to tackle the problem. At False Creek, an estimated 100 or so liveaboards were displaced by the initial decision and needed to find new homes. Soon, other B.C. communities, including Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Port Hardy, Brentwood Bay, Port Moody and Victoria, followed Vancouver’s lead, leaving many boat-dwellers feeling hunted, harassed and vulnerable.

A pair of False Creek liveaboards boat to shore. (Photo: Kathleen Hinkel)

Criminalizing the actions of lower-income people is something Anna Cooper, a Vancouver lawyer who works in the Downtown Eastside, says is a common strategy for making the unsightly aspects of poverty less visible. “The poor often face intersecting laws and bylaws that make it impossible for them to be anywhere,” she explains.

On land, people encounter laws about how much stuff they can have with them on the sidewalk, where they may sleep, whether they can panhandle or whether they can have a shopping cart. On the water, they are kicked out of safe harbours, restricted to where they can land a dinghy, or refused access to garbage or water facilities. “There are two major outcomes of tackling poverty with laws,” says Cooper. “People end up being criminalized for taking basic actions to survive. Or they’re forced into unsafe places, and their lives are put at risk.”

This is what Randy van Eyk says happens to the boat dwellers. As unofficial spokesperson for the plight of B.C.’s liveaboards, van Eyk is the sort of guy who can jump from citing the Marine Act to an expletive-laced rant and back without needing to catch his breath. In a phone call, van Eyk detailed the fines, evictions and a literal storm he has weathered as a liveaboard.

In 2010, his 21-day False Creek winter permit expired, so he weighed anchor and moved out of the harbour to the unprotected waters off Kitsilano Beach. Not long after, a windstorm arrived, and his was one of eight boats washed up on shore. He was able to get his sailboat, the Tuesday Sunrise, back off the beach and use his carpentry skills to get it floating again, but he couldn’t find anyone to reassure him that he wouldn’t be put in such a dangerous situation again.

He said the root of the problem is the city’s deal with the feds. The 2005 amendment to the Canada Shipping Act put the rules surrounding anchorages in the hands of city staffers who don’t have specialized maritime knowledge. “I used to have a legal right of safe harbour, as long as my boat wasn’t a hazard to navigation,” says van Eyk. But now boat owners can be kicked out of a harbour once a bureaucrat says their time is up.

With the aim of testing the situation in court, van Eyk racked up a couple of charges for mooring in False Creek without a permit. He wanted to argue the City of Vancouver is breaching the rights of boaters by denying them a safe place to moor. With a court date set for last winter, van Eyk, who has over three decades of experience on the water, was ready to challenge the system that nearly ruined his life. But then delays kicked in, and the opportunity to fight for his cause was postponed.

Frustrated, van Eyk and other boaters began looking for different solutions. Some took note of how the occupants of tent cities coped with similar issues, thinking a related strategy might work for them. They looked to B.C. rulings that kept tent cities intact after judges agreed that dismantling them would only exacerbate the housing problem. Destroying the communities would drive vulnerable people further to the margins where there’s no support.

“There are two major outcomes of tackling poverty with laws. People end up being criminalized for taking basic actions to survive. Or they’re forced into unsafe places, and their lives are put at risk.”

In the same way, dismantling False Creek puts people at risk — not just from bad weather but also from increased poverty and diminished services when they are forced farther from urban areas. By planning meetings with the city, the liveaboards hoped officials would see the connection and help integrate the liveaboards into the community.

Municipal officials often cite environmental concerns regarding the presence of boats in the harbour. Unmaintained boats can sink or break their moorings and wash up on shore. Then there’s sewage — some boats don’t have holding tanks and pump sewage straight into the sea. But the False Creek pirates argue their ecological footprint can be quite small. For example, some boats are powered with solar panels and use available pump-out facilities.

The environmental argument also implies boaters are the primary cause of degradation. False Creek was such a vital and abundant waterway at one point that it provided sea asparagus, oysters, clams and other food to the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Squamish people. But it was eventually dubbed “Shit Creek” thanks to years of untreated city sewage and toxic outflow from industry in the 20th century. And it’s still happening. In summer 2017, the Fraser River Keepers discovered three unmarked pipes spewing E. coli-contaminated effluent into the same water that the liveaboards were being blamed for polluting.

In fact, Vancouver’s policy of uprooting people every two weeks may worsen the situation. Until 1970, industrial operations discharged toxins directly into False Creek, filling the bottom sediment with high concentrations of cadmium, mercury and lead. Every time a boat moves anchor, this bottom is disturbed.

Connecting with officials within the City of Vancouver to learn more about their perspective on the issue can be difficult. From the office that gives out the permits, I was directed to the park board, then to the media department and finally to the police. The only comment a police spokesperson gave me on the phone was that the police give out tickets to the liveaboards as “a last resort.”

City councillor Michael Wiebe has adopted the issue and is trying to make sense of it. He wants to improve the interactions between the city and the liveaboards, and believes the first step is to stop the harbour evictions in winter to make people safe — even if it’s temporary. “It’s become a jurisdictional mess between the city, province and federal government,” he says.

While the authorities sort out whose mess it is, Wiebe says the city can take some steps to solve the pollution issues. This includes continuing to offer free mobile sewage pump out, helping boaters get black-water holding tanks and putting together a non-profit that would help cash-strapped liveaboards maintain their boats.

For Wiebe, coming up with a solution is a matter of common sense. Vancouver already has a huge problem with meeting the needs of its 2,181 homeless people. The False Creek community isn’t homeless yet. They still have their boats, and they could have a stable place to live. Keeping each one of them safe shouldn’t be an issue that gets lost in red tape.

Diane Selkirk is a writer in Vancouver.

This story first appeared in The United Church Observer's March/April issue with the title "Troubled waters."

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