Mudflats Living, Shangri‐la, and Malcolm Lowry 

Mayor Walton’s Deep Cove Crier Column ‐ September 2012 

Many Deep Cove residents will remember the squatters’ homes along the Dollarton waterfront and mudflats.  The 1971 National Film Board film, “Mudflats Living” (This film appears to be lost - if you know how to find it, please let me know. Davy) depicts the final months of the community of squatters living there prior to North Vancouver District burning the buildings.  Among the interviewees in the film was a young Tsleil‐Waututh Nation Chief Leonard George.

In the mid‐1950s a larger colony of squatters’ shacks existed along the Malcolm Lowry Trail in Cates Park.  Today you can see the stone marker, placed in 2005, commemorating where the English writer Malcolm Lowry lived on and off from 1940 until 1954.  Deep Cove resident, former District Councillor and author, Trevor Carolan provided the text for the sign, which is sandblasted into the basalt rock:

“Malcolm Lowry’s celebrated shack stood on the beach east of this spot, and his beloved local story “The Forest Path to the Spring” was written here.  He called this stretch of shoreline ‘Eridanus”.  Its mystic seasons, he wrote, are “like that which is called the Tao.”

Lowry’s short story is about his love for Dollarton, and his wife, and finding man’s home within the cycles of nature along the shores of Burrard Inlet.  The story is still available within his only published book of short stories “Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place” (Penguin Books).

Three years before his death in 1957, Lowry was away in Europe when his friend, Canadian poet and UBC professor Earle Birney, was informed that a North Vancouver District bulldozer was flattening squatters’ shacks in Dollarton, including the home of Lowry and his wife.  As a young UBC English literature student I remember listening to Birney describing himself standing in the mud and pouring rain, surrounded by Lowry’s soaked handwritten drafts of yet unpublished works, trying to explain to the District worker that he was destroying manuscripts that were written by the greatest living English writer. Birney later prefaced these words in Lowry’s collected poems:

“The bright crazy little shack is gone; all the sloppy ramshackle honest pile houses where fishermen lived and kingfishers visited are bulldozed into limbo, along with the wild cherries and ‘the forest path to the spring’.  Now there is an empty beach and beside it a park with picnic tables and tarmac access; the sea air stinks with car exhaust.  And the city that ignored him plans to cement a bronze plaque in his memory to the brick wall of the new civic craphouse.”

Our much loved District sign painter (he of the famed animal signs), Cameron Stewart, owns a copy of Lowry’s “Collected Poems”.  Cameron spoke to me recently about the irony that he himself was directly involved in the ‘bronze plaque’ and signage commemorating Lowry‘s Eridanus home that the District removed.  This 1954 eviction haunted Lowry and is the central theme in his posthumously published last novel, “October Ferry to Gabriola”.

By the 1960s, the Maplewood Flats area, a kilometre west of Cates Park, had attracted an assortment of hippies, artists and seasonal workers seeking self‐sufficiency as an alternative to the accelerating pace of development in Vancouver and its suburbs.  The longstanding tensions between the residents and local authority came to a head on a snowy winter day in December 1971 when most of the mudflat dwellings were burned down.  The removal of the last squatters’ shacks 40 years ago marked the end of a lifestyle that became increasingly hard to justify for local taxpayers and policymakers in the 1950s and 1960s.  Increasing public health standards and the expansion of municipal infrastructure brought an end to that community.

Local Artist Ken Lum re‐created three of the squatter cabins in 2010 for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite large scale art program and he called it “From Shangri‐la to Shangri‐la”.  The artwork was situated on West Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver, surrounded by high rise buildings, and adjacent to Vancouver’s new tallest building, the Shangri‐La Hotel.  Mr. Lum was contacted at my request, by the District, to determine what the future plan was for the replicas.  He generously donated the buildings to North Vancouver District, where they will be a catalyst for remembering and reflecting on changing times and community values.

On July 23 Mr. Lum was present for the unveiling of the buildings which have been rebuilt on stilts in the tidal slough adjacent to the parking lot of the Bird Sanctuary on Dollarton Highway.  Two of the replica cabins are only several hundred metres away from their original location.

Our community grew from its original First Nations settlements, through a network of early landholdings and squatters communities into the suburban community we know today.  We still have residents among us who are homeless and struggle to fit into the mainstream urban culture that we live in.  By examining our past, what we did and why we did it, the District can look for more compassionate solutions to our social and housing challenges in the years ahead.  But our community is expensive to live in, and we continue to struggle to house many of our marginalized residents, as was the case 70 years ago when Lowry and many others lived in the forests and along the shoreline in relatively primitive conditions.  Lowry’s own words taken from his poem, “Happiness” best describe the appeal of living this way:

“Blue mountains with snow and blue cold rough water,
A wild sky full of stars at rising
And Venus and the gibbous moon at sunrise,
Trees with branches rooted in air –
Eagles drive downward in one,
Terns blow backward,
My God, why have you given this to us?”

The Dollarton Pleasure Faire of 1972
The 1971 burning of squats at Maplewood Mudflats