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Facing eviction, B.C. mom living on floating home pleads for reprieve

She says she’ll be left homeless if the forestry ministry removes her home from Kootenay Lake
Kyley Gagnon is seen here on the floating home she owns on Kootenay Lake. The forestry ministry wants to evict her. Photo: Submitted

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

A woman living in a floating home on Kootenay Lake is pleading with the provincial government not to evict her from her aquatic residence near Nelson.

Kyley Gagnon says she’ll be left homeless if the Ministry of Forests carries out its demand for her to remove her floating home from Kootenay Lake.

“In these challenging times of skyrocketing inflation and a housing crisis affecting all residents of British Columbia, I kindly urge you to reconsider your decision to seize my float home and impose fines on my family,” Gagnon wrote to the ministry last month. “These actions would undoubtedly impose an overwhelming burden on us, causing immense hardship.”

She isn’t the only one facing sanction for living on Kootenay Lake. Several other floating home or houseboat owners in the West Arm area have been fined and received notice to remove their structures from the water.

Gagnon has lived in the floating home, in her case a kind of modified barge, for about three years. She has been in the ministry’s sights since at least the summer of 2022, when her first trespass notice was issued. Her floating home is anchored with two others off a dock near One Mile, east of Nelson. She says she loves the lifestyle – she homeschools her children in the 720-square-foot structure, living an environmentally low-impact life.

“It fits our values. I prefer to live off grid and be self-sustainable as much as we can,” she says. “It’s not for everybody. It can be a difficult life for modern urban people, but more people today are striving to live like this, because it’s more friendly for the environment and the cost is more appropriate.”

But Gagnon’s boat is technically trespassing on Crown land. The land is underwater, but the province still has jurisdiction over it. The ministry has the authority to remove or destroy structures that trespass on its property.

A ministry spokesperson said the action against Gagnon is just one of several being undertaken by the province.

“The Ministry of Forests’ Compliance and Enforcement Branch undertook a project to address unauthorized occupation of Crown land by float homes on several lakes in the Kootenays,” the ministry wrote in response to inquiries from the Valley Voice. “This project was initiated after several complaints were received from the public.”

Gagnon has also run afoul of RDCK zoning rules, which don’t permit floating homes in the area, though the local government hasn’t moved on the violation.

“Our bylaw officer has been working with them for well over a year now,” said Area F Director Tom Newell. “But the Crown decided through its department this was an illegal action and it couldn’t be tolerated any longer…

“This was an extreme example of something that was really in breach of regulations.”

On July 27, Gagnon was served a second trespass notice, for storing a floating home and associated materials on Crown land without authority, impeding public access to Crown land, and non-compliance with the first notice.

It ordered her to “cease the unauthorized occupation and use of Crown land and give up possession of the land.” Her current anchor point has to be left in a clean, safe and sanitary condition, and the float home removed from Kootenay Lake or moved to a private property.

She was also fined $1,050 for not complying with the 2022 notice.

“This fine is giving some serious damage to me emotionally and causing a lot of stress for all us float home owners. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “And you try to talk to [the province], and they don’t even realize they are being bullies, calling us and mailing us and emailing us. It’s harassment, really.

“They say they have a solution, to put us into low-income housing, which I have no desire at all to be in. I worked hard to raise my family not to have to, and I’d be taking away from people who really need it.”

Another houseboat owner who’s received a notice or fine says it’s been difficult to work with the varying levels of government to confirm just what is or isn’t allowed.

The owner, who asked not to be named, says they weren’t given any warning when they were building their structures, even though they approached local government to ensure they weren’t breaking any rules.

“We were kind of given the go-ahead, and now they are coming back years later, trying to crack down,” said the owner. “It’s frustrating because we can’t get a solid answer from anyone, and no one is really willing to work with us at all.

“The only option they’re leaving us with at this point is to seize our boats but we don’t want to move until we know where we can move.”

Gagnon told the Valley Voice she and fellow floating home owners have gone to local marinas looking for more permanent berthing but haven’t had any success. She also doesn’t have the wherewithal to hire a lawyer and fight the government, she said. So, in late August she sent the ministry a letter pleading for a break.

“As a widowed mother responsible for two young children aged nine and 11, and with the added pressures of school and winter preparations, it is simply impossible for me to relocate at this moment while ensuring a stable environment for my children,” she wrote. “Therefore, I humbly request a temporary reprieve, allowing us to remain in our current situation.”

Gagnon also wrote that she’s working with the local MLA, RDCK, and social service agencies and is confident “a solution can be reached that satisfies all involved.”

Gagnon was supposed to remove the structure by August 25, but on Sept. 6 said she was still in her home.

Float home moratorium

Gagnon and her fellow floating home owners could try to apply for Crown land tenure to be able to use the public space they’re squatting on, or at some other location. Gagnon has also launched a petition on calling on the province and RDCK to establish a legal floating home community on Kootenay Lake.

But there’s a problem with that idea: the province has had a moratorium on new floating communities in place since 1996.

“Please note that the Province of British Columbia currently does not accept applications for floating home communities,” says the website of Farming, Natural Resources and Industry, which administers the Lands Act.

While there is provision in certain circumstances where the ministry would allow a new community, it would only happen after approvals by various provincial, federal and First Nations governments or ministries. Strict environmental, building, safety, and community zoning regulations would also need to be satisfied.

Leo Stradiotti, president of the BC Floating Homes Association, said he thought Gagnon’s chances of clearing all the hurdles were “slim to none.”

“We have been at it constantly, for years,” he says of lobbying for a lifting of the moratorium.

Currently there are about 22 floating communities in B.C., almost all on the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island, and about 50 private ones scattered around the province.

Charter case?

While it looks bleak for the floating home owners’ prospects, Gagnon may have one ace up her sleeve. A ministry policy paper on aquatic problem structures also contains a caution for provincial officials.

“Where a vessel or other structure is a person’s sole residence, special considerations arise,” notes the technical document (which comes with a proviso that it is not official legal advice). “Seizure of a vessel that is a person’s dwelling may be contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms if it would deprive that person of shelter against the elements and endanger that person’s well-being.

“Such situations often require an interagency approach that considers social and human dimensions of the issue,” it continues. “Depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary to involve agencies such as the RCMP, health authorities, or social service providers.”

For its part, the forestry ministry said it has “provided individuals with extended timeframes to comply, offered multiple opportunities to meet to discuss options, and provided information regarding local service providers to bring their float homes into compliance.”

It says it has also worked with the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction requesting they reach out “to offer assistance where appropriate.”

In the meantime, Gagnon and her fellow floating home owners can only wait for the ministry’s next move.

“I’m just trying to live,” she said. “I just want to live here.”

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