Paved paradise, squatting a parking lot

Squatting is a proud Yukon tradition. It used to involve finding an unoccupied patch of wilderness, clearing the land, and building a sturdy log cabin.

Squatting is a proud Yukon tradition.

It used to involve finding an unoccupied patch of wilderness, clearing the land, and building a sturdy log cabin.

Nowadays, the territory’s fastest-growing squatters’ community is in a parking lot.

Sebastien Jean was crawling around on the roof of his truck camper in the Walmart parking lot when the News caught up with him on Tuesday.

He’s been living there, about 100 metres from Starbucks, for the past month.

Heavy winds the night before had ripped the vent flap off the roof, but it wasn’t anything a little duct tape couldn’t fix.

Job done, he crawled down from the roof, using an open window and his battered car as steps.

There are about eight other RVs, vans and campers scattered throughout the parking lot.

The majority are parked along Quartz Road but there are also a few, like Jean’s, in other areas.

“It’s becoming quite a little squatters’ community,” he said.

He’s befriended his neighbour, who lives in a Dodge van a couple parking spaces away.

“And there’s another guy over there, I think,” he said, pointing towards the far side of a massive pile of snow.

Jean came to the Yukon from Quebec City in March. He lived at Lead Dog Backpackers hostel for a while and bought the camper in the summer. He and his girlfriend moved in and relocated to the bush for three months.

But their time living in the wild wasn’t quite as idyllic as you might expect.

The pair camped out at the end of Long Lake Road, within sniffing distance of Whitehorse’s main sewage lagoon.

“The smell got pretty bad whenever we got a south wind,” Jean admits.

“But it was more funny than anything.”

After the snow began to fly, Jean worried about getting stuck on the wrong side of the river.

So he moved to Walmart, which is well-known for offering free camping spaces.

During the summer, the parking lot is usually bustling with RVers who are passing through the territory and aren’t interested in paying parking fees at campsites and RV parks.

Since he’s moved in, Jean hasn’t heard from Walmart. The corporation didn’t respond to a request for an interview by press time.

But Jean’s pretty sure that there won’t be a problem with their temporary residence.

“I think they know that there’s a problem with housing,” he said. “And it works out nicely for them, too.”

Jean uses the Walmart parking lot and its bathrooms, but he also does his shopping there. And if he ever runs out of duct tape or WD-40, Canadian Tire is in the neighbourhood as well.

It’s unclear whether the majority of the Walmart campers are living there because of high prices and low vacancy rates, or some other reason.

Judging from the lack of tracks in the snow around their entrances, some of the trailers in the parking lot aren’t being used at all.

But Jean, for one, seems to prefer the novelty of living out of a camper.

He works as a trucker and is used to tiny spaces and life on the road, he said.

“It’s cheap and I like the simple life.”

The camper contains a Coleman stove and a barbecue for cooking. Jean says he eats well, but at the base of the stairs, there was a pile of frozen macaroni, that Jean spilled the night before. It looked suspiciously like Kraft Dinner.

The camper is kept warm with a kerosene heater.

Jean admits that he should have done more work on the camper over the summer and fall to winterize it.

“It’s like the story of the ant and the grasshopper – I sang all summer.”

As a result, he and his girlfriend have laundry stuffed into corners to prevent drafts, and Styrofoam insulation here and there.

“The rest is love,” he said.

Just because the squat isn’t in the wilds, doesn’t mean there’s no wildlife.

There’s a coyote that shows up every evening, possibly to clean up Jean’s spilt macaroni.

And the ravens come to visit every morning, squawking and stomping around on the roof of the camper.

These animals are the only visitors that Jean has received. He hasn’t had any problem with vandalism and has never felt unsafe.

He’s received a few stares from Whitehorse residents using the parking lot for its more conventional, short-term use, but no one seems too surprised to see someone camped out in the dead of winter.

“It’s the Yukon,” said Jean. “People aren’t surprised by much.”

Jean and his girlfriend plan to find a hotel or apartment once Jean begins to work again in January.

So they’ll be sticking around their parking lot squat throughout the holidays.

All they need are a few decorations to make the place look festive and a little more like home.

Contact Chris Oke at chriso@yukon-news.com

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