After a decades-long legal saga, time seems to be running out for two of the last three people living in Hooterville.
In April, Alexander MacDonald and Patrick Lemaire were hand-delivered a warning from a provincial lands officer saying the homes they built on Crown land in west-end Queen Charlotte are illegal and they have until July 31 to comply with a trespass notice they received in 2015.
Failing to comply means the province can remove, sell, or demolish whatever is left on site.
“If this is real, then all I can do is walk away with whatever I can carry,” MacDonald said, gesturing at the books, art, furniture, and weekly men’s group circle in a house he built with community support after his previous one washed away in a storm two days before Christmas 2003.
“I don’t understand how we got there, because last I heard we were going to court, and there is still a case before the court,” he said.
On July 20, MacDonald planned to represent himself and Lemaire at court in Terrace, where he had hoped to get an injunction against the province’s enforcement of the trespass notice.
MacDonald said he was advised to do that after a single meeting with a lawyer — all the legal help he could find or afford for his unique situation — because the province brought a court case against him but never finished it.
However, the province applied for and was granted a general adjournment of that case in November. As part of the application, MacDonald included a letter from Yaahldaaju, Gary Russ, who said he is the Haida who owns the land and has a lease agreement with McDonald.
“I would like Canada and B.C. to show me proof of ownership,” Yaahldaaju wrote.
But late last week, MacDonald’s application was also adjourned.
In 2015, shortly after MacDonald and Lemaire were served the trespass notices, Leonard Munt, manager of the Haida Gwaii Natural Resource District, said that after decades of shifting agreements between the province and Hooterville residents, the trespass notices were final.
“All the other options have been exhausted,” he told the Observer, adding that the district tried hard to get a variance for the few people then remaining in the area.
But while the variance worked for one resident, it came with conditions that MacDonald couldn’t meet.
MacDonald applied for a licence under the variance, but with some changes and a letter outlining his objections.
His application was never granted.
One of the criteria MacDonald couldn’t meet was a test for low-income status because of some inherited land he had in Ontario. MacDonald said he always intended to pass that land to his children, and he has recently done so.
That land aside, MacDonald said it was easy to show that all his life earnings — about $100,000 — have gone into his home.
Besides about $1,500 cash and whatever belongings he can carry, MacDonald now has nothing else.
“If this is gone, I’m homeless,” he said.
“And on top of it, they say they will charge me any cost associated with cleaning up the area. That will bankrupt me.”
Kevin Gibson is one of MacDonald’s two remaining neighbours, and he remembers what Hooterville was like even before MacDonald moved there in 1995, before its population dwindled due to cancelled Crown land tenures, deaths, re-locations, and a suspected arson fire.
“The residents have done a lot of work to clean it up,” Gibson said, noting how different the land looked even 30 years ago.
“There was all this wreckage from different industries, especially tow boating, logging, fishing, booming, saw-milling,” he said.
“Everywhere you went there were big rusty chunks of machines and abandoned vehicles and lots and lots and lots of garbage.”
Despite the many legal notices, public meetings, appeals to Haida hereditary leaders, and bureaucratic ins and outs, Gibson said he thinks what is happening to MacDonald and Lemaire is basically part of a move to gentrify Queen Charlotte by removing low-income people.
“I believe that’s the plan,” Gibson said. “I have all along.”
MacDonald said he keeps thinking back to something his brother said when he bought his original house in Hooterville in 1995, which even then was done with a one-off variance to a plan intended to wind up all the Hooterville tenures as residents moved or passed away.
“He said, ‘Well, it seemed like you just jumped off the dock onto a mattress covering a bunch of bowling balls,’” MacDonald said.
“I don’t know how he knew, but that’s pretty much how it’s been — all over the place. I had no sense at all. I just thought I was buying the house.”