Whitehorse Daily Star

Regulatory realities stifle man's dream

This is not a story of right and wrong. It is a story of many people doing what they believe is right. The trouble is, their perceptions of what is right collide.

By Whitehorse Star on August 12, 2005

This is not a story of right and wrong. It is a story of many people doing what they believe is right. The trouble is, their perceptions of what is right collide.

There is a man who is losing his hand-built cabin that stands on the quiet banks of a cold lake, accessible only by boat, foot and float plane. It was to be his retirement home. The place he hoped to live out the rest of his days.

Then there is the territorial lands branch, charged with managing and preserving the Yukon's wild tracts of land. Its job is to ensure rural land is managed fairly and follows principles of conservation and long-term planning.

While the question of what impact a man, who goes undetected in the wilderness for eight years, will have on his surrounding environs begs an answer, so does the dilemma of drawing lines.

If one person is permitted to venture out into the wilds and build a cabin on territorial land, isn't everyone?

The question that lies at the heart of the case of the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources vs. Guy Mirabeau is one of competing values.

For Mirabeau, he had a dream of retiring in the bush in the Yukon.

He had just emerged from his remote cabin in the forest outside Mayo when he came in to tell his story.

Mirabeau spoke with wild hand gestures and confusion in his eyes. His hair and his beard were long, black streaked with grey.

'I'm retired now, I planned to spend the rest of my life in the Yukon,' he said in an interview with the Star.

'I'm going to fight and I'm going to lose. I'm not going to go there with my cap in my hands and ask them for this land. I'm fighting to lose.'

In 1996, Mirabeau came up to the Yukon from his home in Ottawa. Inspired by books he'd read about the Gold Rush and previous trips to the territory, he ventured off into the woods looking for a place to build a cabin.

Mirabeau found his Shangri-La on the isolated shores of Russell Creek, a waterway in the Chain of Lakes region some 160 kilometres southeast of Mayo.

He explained that he'd built a small cabin there.

'I did the old way, like the old timers, 10 by 12 feet,' he said.

Mirabeau also built a library which houses 400 books in French, Spanish and English and tends a vegetable garden.

The 58-year-old translator came to his cabin every summer for six seasons and spent his first winter there last year.

The homestead he had created though, was built on territorial land. He was bunking down on a trapping concession for which he needed permission from the government and the concession's holder.

Mirabeau says he had made a deal for the land with a local man, whom he thought had the concession rights to the plot. While he believed he was on this man's concession, he was not.

The cabin was, in fact, built within the bounds of a different trapping concession.

Two natural resources officers from the village of Mayo were flying over the land in the Chain of Lakes region when they glimpsed a cabin in the woods on land that should have been vacant.

It was Aug. 18, 2004. They landed the helicopter and were greeted by Mirabeau, whom Aaron Koss-Young, a senior natural resource officer for the Village of Mayo, described as 'very co-operative' in court documents.

They asked Mirabeau what he was doing on the land, how long he had been there, and took photos of the property.

Documents filed in Yukon Supreme Court say Koss-Young also gave Mirabeau advice to visit the lands branch in Whitehorse about his options, as he had no tenure for the land.

Mirabeau was seen in Whitehorse in September 2004 but did not visit the branch, court documents say.

That winter, Mirabeau stayed in the cabin, spending his first full year in the bush.

While he stayed on in his cabin on the banks of Russell Creek, his case was making its way through the lands branch and into the courts.

On July 21, 2005 a suit was filed ordering Mirabeau to 'vacate or abandon and cease using, possessing, or occupying the lands' under the Territorial Lands (Yukon) Act.

Mirabeau was given 30 days to either vacate the property or show cause as to why he should be permitted to stay.

This was not an eviction order though, says Lyle Henderson, director of the lands branch.

It is rather a first step that compels the person to get in contact with the government, he said in an interview.

'In the majority of cases there are very few eviction orders,' he says. 'Every effort is made to resolve the issue outside of the court process.'

In the vast majority of cases, he says, the issue is resolved through discussion. Often people know they are on government land and abandon the property willingly.

There are a variety of different principles the government follows when making the rules and regulations for land use.

'Preserving land for the public good' is key among them, says Henderson.

Why can't Mirabeau live out his Yukon dream?

Because that Yukon doesn't exist anymore, according to Ron Billingham, communications analyst for the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

'It's just not permitted to go out into the wilderness and hack out a homestead,' he said in an interview earlier this week. 'If it was, we'd all be doing it.'

That romantic idea of the Yukon as the final frontier, where the last wild lands are up for the taking, is not possible in with today's environmental concerns, Billingham says.

Principles of land management, use, planning and protection all come into play.

Also, much of the land that may appear vacant is actually already divided into trapping concessions which are leased to or owned by first nations groups, families, individuals and communities.

'All Yukoners value wildlife, it's a very emotional thing to all Yukon people,' Billingham says. '(People who take land) are just taking something that belongs to the public.'

Mirabeau says his cabin was for the public, for campers and canoers passing through.

Once, a German couple came by and he offered them food and the use of his library.

'I built it for everyone, for all the world, for all Yukoners,' Mirabeau says. 'I thought I was a Yukoner.'

Another issue for the French-born Canadian citizen is that inspectors wrote 'may be illegal alien' after visiting him; this line appears in court documents.

Although the inspectors never asked him for proof of citizenship when they interviewed him in August 2004, Mirabeau says he had it with him in his cabin.

'To be called a foreigner in your own country,' he said shaking his head. 'Well, that's really something.'

Thirty-three of Mirabeau's 58 years have been lived out on Canadian soil. For 25 of those, he has been a Canadian citizen, he says.

'I'm Canadian, I'm Canadian! I'm 25 years Canadian,' he said, putting his hands on the desk and leaning forward.

He brought his passport to the Star to prove he is a Canadian citizen.

Regardless of citizenship, however, Mirabeau's use of the land is not legal.

Margarete White, manager of land use for the Yukon, says he was asked to come in and speak with someone about his options.

'You need some sort of tenure,' she says.

There are a number of different ways to get tenure for land, depending on the exact location of the property and what the intended use for that property is.

Some of these options include applying through the government for rural residential status, commercial and industrial lots, as well as the rights to use a vacant trapping concession, among others.

However, each of these options carries with it a set of criteria.

For example, in order to use a trapping concession, a person must be a registered trapper. A person could not simply apply to live on a trapping concession without first being a trapper.

Obtaining land for rural residential use, which may seem like the most logical route for Mirabeau's situation, applies only to certain sections of land.

'The purpose of the policy is to allow people to acquire land, where existing road access facilitates rational rural residential development,' the Rural Residential Land Application Policy says.

With no road access to his cabin on Russell Creek, and without a trapping licence, it is unlikely Mirabeau would have been approved under either of these policies.

There are also special policies for staking mineral claims, which can grant access to land in remote areas.

However, Mirabeau was looking to retire on the land, not to mine it.

It all comes down to fairness, Billingham says.

'Land policies had to become land policies . . . to make it fair for everyone else,' he says. 'To make sure that everyone has the same opportunity.'

For the government it is a matter of universality, giving all Canadians equal access to live and work in the wilderness. It is also a matter of preserving nature and managing the Yukon's untamed stretches to maintain it over time.

For Mirabeau, it was about finding a lone piece of land and living a simple life. He wanted to live like the 'old timers' of the Gold Rush.

'I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do,' he says. 'I know that I'll always come back. But you need enthusiasm to live like that. I've lost it.'

In the wake of this case, both sides agree the Yukon of the Gold Rush Mirabeau was seeking, no longer exists.

They also agree that many people who squat on government land, spend beautiful times there before being asked to leave.

'You can take what I have; you can't take what I had,' said Mirabeau, quoting Roman philosopher Seneca.

Mirabeau said he is not interested in going to court. He has sent the lands branch a letter explaining his position, which staff have received. He will not be pursuing the case any further, he says.

Once a property is vacated, it is usually demolished, destroyed or burned in order to return the land to its natural state, according to Billingham.

This is where this story of competing rights and wrongs ends for now. The lives living out this drama will carry it to some conclusion.

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