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Destruction of the Maplewood Mudflats

Germaine Koh

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We are squatters here

Around “Vancouver,” the conditions that proscribe how one can operate creatively outside of social norms were sealed decades ago. One formative event in the process of restricting that collective imagination occurred at the end of 1971, and its memory has echoed ever more faintly as those conditions became entrenched in the years since. That event was the burning-down of the homes of the Maplewood Mudflats community in Burrard Inlet: humble housing built of scavenged materials, located in the intertidal zone that should have escaped colonial claim. As represented in two 1971 documentary films that lauded the free-living lifestyles of the artists and scientist who lived there, the community presented an affront to ideas of how one is meant to live in cities.1

Since then, squats have continued to be removed in the name of public order: the Expo 86 squats, Woodward’s, Occupy, the hauling away of liveaboard boats from False Creek in pre-Olympics tidying, the current tent cities that pop up from place to place like fruiting fungal bodies because after all they are living beings. All were quashed, but notice an evolution: tent cities are now less often conceived as intentional political action, even if they become that as a matter of fact. The 1990 eviction of the Frances Street squats by a SWAT team “was an attack meant to extinguish the power and energy that had evolved at the squats during their nine-month life. They had to extinguish the energy that comes when a community of people take housing and their lives into their own hands.”2 At stake now is not a lifestyle—flouting convention as a choice or an expression of political conviction—but mere survival, in a city so deeply invested in capitalism that there is simply nowhere for that many unhoused people to go. Our collective capitulation to the system is complete. Creative people are flowing away from the city, and folks without homes continue to be ousted from wherever they find shelter, because collectively we can no longer imagine alternatives to our systems of private property.

Of course, most of us are squatters here on unceded Coast Salish territory. Jaden Kelsing points out that there is an “intrinsic relationship between settler colonialism and squatting. Historians have shown how the production of urban space for settler Vancouver depended on Indigenous dispossession and how the frequently perplexing issues of squatter and foreshore rights have always been entangled in the mechanisms of ‘municipal colonialism.’”3 As colonial activities took over their territories, the local Indigenous nations were first pressured onto urban reserves, then squeezed out of them. But also, the settlers, migrants and labourers who built communities at Brockton Point, Deadman’s Island and along the waterfronts starting in the late 1800s could only be labelled as “squatters” and were removed in their turn as these areas were claimed by colonial powers. The production of private property created haves and have-nots.

For its part, it seems the Mudflats community had some support from the nearby Tsleil-Waututh, perhaps because the band recognized that the community shared some common purposes—whether invalidating colonial control over their traditional territories, or fighting for low-impact modes of living in connection to the land. In the film Mudflats Living, Len George warns of the danger of not standing on principle. Though he is speaking specifically about the environment, his words also resonate with attempts to resist colonial norms: “They’re going to look back over the land, the way it is now, after it’s all built up, and they’re going to say, ‘Why didn’t we do something about it in 1970, or 1971? Why didn’t we fight for it then?’”4

A little further along the foreshore, one last mudflats shack survived until recently, because its presence had served neighbouring private companies—until it didn’t. Beautifully crafted by a Norwegian shipbuilder some 80 years prior, this humble blue cabin was saved from demolition in 2015 and rehabilitated by a group of arts organizations, and in 2019 I led a construction crew that built a new deckhouse beside it on a float.5 Together, the cabin and deckhouse now ply the waterways of Coast Salish territory as the Blue Cabin Floating Artist Residency, proudly announcing their un-owned status and bearing witness to the possibility of existing outside the colonial norms that govern this region, and hoping to revive its wider collective imaginary.

Germaine Koh

Germaine Koh is an artist and curator based on the west coast in traditional Coast Salish territories. Her work adapts familiar situations, everyday actions and common spaces to encourage connections between people, technology and natural systems. Recently she has served as the City of Vancouver’s first Engineering Artist in Residence (2018–20) and as Koerner Artist in Residence at the University of British Columbia (2021). She is a 2023–24 Shadbolt Fellow in the Humanities at Simon Fraser University. Koh was awarded a 2023 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.


1 These ideals included being connected to sewers and electricity, as relayed in the films by former District of North Vancouver mayor Ron Andrews. Chris Paterson and Robert Fresco, dirs., Mudflats Living, National Film Board, 1972; and Sean Malone, dir., Livin’ on the Mud, King Screen Productions, 1972.

2 Squatters Alliance of Vancouver East flyer, June, 1993, cited in W.O.O.D.S.Q.U.A.T., no. 53, December 8, 2002.

3 Kaden Jelsing, “Mudflat Dreaming: Waterfront Battles and the Squatters Who Fought Them in 1970s Vancouver,” Pacific Affairs, Summer, 2019, pp. 190–92.

4 Mudflats Living.

5 The Blue Cabin was saved by a coalition of Other Sights for Artists’ Projects, Creative Cultural Collaborations and grunt gallery, and remediated by artists Jeremy and Sus Borsos.