“It is not just us you are destroying, it’s nature.”
– Helen Simpson confronting crews sent by the District of North Vancouver to demolish and burn the intertidal homes built on what was then known as the Dollarton mudflats in Sean Malone’s film, Livin’ In the Mud.
Jean Walton returns to the West Coast this week for several events associated with her new book, Mudflat Dreaming: Waterfront Battles and the Squatters who fought them in 1970s Vancouver.
Now a professor of modern and postmodern literature in the English Department at the University of Rhode Island, Walton grew up in Surrey where her family operated Wally’s Motel on the King George Highway.
Mudflat Dreaming is the latest addition in New Star Books’ excellent Transmontanus series focusing on B.C. history. Walton has trained her sights on an era in municipal politics, the late ’60s, early ’70s when local councils in Surrey and the District of North Vancouver were making life miserable for some of their low-income and marginalized residents in favour of the interests of developers.
The Bridgeview neighbourhood, in north Surrey along the Fraser River, contained taxpaying citizens who fought with a council led by mayor Bill Vander Zalm for basic amenities, while the Maplewood squatters set up homes off-the-grid in the intertidal zone of Burrard Inlet much to the chagrin of mayor Ron Andrews and his band of merry aldermen. One community wanted to be connected to the grid while the other wanted no part of it. Their situations were different but both had problems that revolved around land-use issues that still plague the Lower Mainland to this day.
Three films from the ’70s (two released through the National Film Board of Canada and one independently) that document the lives of the residents and how they responded to the pressure from the councils form the basis of Walton’s study.
In her work, Walton explores both the social and historical roots of the communities as well as the cinematic esthetics of the sources that document their stories in Mudflat Dreaming. She spoke to the North Shore News earlier this week .
North Shore News: What initiated your research into the material that makes up Mudflat Dreaming?
Jean Walton: I originally wanted to write some kind of memoir about growing up in Whalley because I spent all my teen years there. I did a little research to remind myself of the mood and the feel of the 1970s in Whalley though I did have my own diaries to draw on. When I started doing research online the first thing I came across were these films from the NFB – one of them on the North Shore of Vancouver and the other one was a documentary made about Surrey. As soon as I watched these films I realized I just didn’t want to do a memoir, I wanted do more of a history of these films and the background behind them.
It’s basically the films that started my passion to dig up the history of what those filmmakers were documenting. When I researched the Surrey film that led me to a whole NFB project that had existed through the ’60s and ’70s called the Challenge for Change program [in which[ the NFB had very generous funding to hire what they called social animators, or really community workers who had media skills. They decided in each [locality[ what the most pressing issues were. By the time Challenge for Change made it’s way to B.C. – it started up in B.C. a little bit later – they decided to focus on land-use issues which was different from those covered across the rest of the country.
North Shore News: Do you use any of the material in Mudflat Dreaming in your university courses?
Jean Walton: Only in a very minor way. My courses are on modernist literature. I just finished a course on World War 1 literature set in England. I do occasionally teach film courses, as well. I teach a course on film in the ’70s and sometimes I will teach Mudflats Living in that course as well as a whole section on McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I don’t really teach B.C. studies which is really what this book belongs to. It’s not my primary expertise, it’s really just a research interest that I’ve had in recent years.
North Shore News: What distinguished Bridgeview in Surrey from the mudflats in North Vancouver? They both had their hands full dealing with local municipal governments.
Jean Walton: I asked the Surrey people what was different about what they were doing with the Challenge for Change program at the NFB and what the filmmakers on the North Shore were doing. They said the program was really about helping working-class people deal with land problems in relation to a local government that was really interested in development. The squatters on the North Shore were not so much interested in property ownership and abiding by the rules. The Challenge for Change people were more focused on helping residents get the amenities that they sought. The people in Bridgeview had been living there for decades but didn’t have proper sewage facilities because the local Surrey council wanted to industrialize the whole area – it was already half industrialized, that was part of the problem. The agricultural land reserve had just been established when Challenge for Change arrived and they wanted to educate people about what that was all about.
North Shore News: In the post-colonial era Bridgeview was continually inhabited since the 1860s whereas the Maplewood Mudflats has only been intermittently settled by squatters.
Jean Walton: Bridgeview was like a regular gridded neighbourhood of people building their own houses and waiting for the amenities, whereas on the North Shore it wasn’t about trying to establish a regular neighbourhood. They called themselves squatters and they really wanted to have a more ephemeral tenancy of the land and came to define their presence there really in ecological terms – at least the ’60s and ’70s squatters who were there.
North Shore News: The Surrey confrontations with authorities were in council while the mudflats were on site. Was the Surrey group more politically organized? They were fighting for something while the mudflats just wanted to be left alone.
Jean Walton: When I first started my research I thought the local residents weren’t super-politicized until the Challenge for Change activists got there to help them but when I talked with someone who I went to school with who actually lived there he said, ‘No, we were organized before they got here and we were already fighting back and constantly petitioning city council to get a proper sewer system.’
They had septic tanks and they were trying to get them replaced by a sewer system that wouldn’t back up into their ditches. There still is a residential neighbourhood there and I think they’re still beset by some of the same problems today. They were politicized before and during the intervention of the NFB. They constantly went to city council and interacted with the mayor (VanderZalm) and council and tried to abide by the rules of what they needed to do to get what they needed and just met with pushback all the time because of a desire on the part of the city administrators to industrialize and make more of a profit down there on the riverside.
North Shore News: There were a lot of individual characters living on the mudflats – everybody seemed to go their own way. The stories of several people stand out including neuroscientist/cetologist Paul Spong, artist Tom Burrows and their young families who made their homes there. Helen Simpson lived alone but was also an important member of the community. (Walton’s book in part takes its name from a song Simpson wrote back in the day, “Mudflat Living”).
Jean Walton: I was just adding slides to the presentation I am going to give on Thursday of her as well as the cover of the songbook that one of her songs appears in. She has a chapter devoted to her and luckily one of my informants really wanted me to get as full a picture of her as I could. The other people didn’t really talk about her very much but one of them, Dan Clemens, said that she had been kind of a hero to him. I got a lot of beautiful imagery from him about Helen and you see her in action in the film but she’s never named. Dan Clemens shared an image that he had – it’s just a radiantly beautiful black and white image of her that appears in the book.
I think it was easier (for the filmmakers) to make characters out of the people that lived on the mudflats and also they weren’t like a group of people who were trying to live in a purposeful community. They really were just individuals who saw a beautiful setting and set up to live there, each for their own reasons. They weren’t trying to follow any kind of precepts. Each of them had very different backgrounds.
North Shore News: The mudflats community was ostensibly removed to make way for a shopping centre which was never built. In a lot of respects the area is just like it was in the ’70s.
Jean Walton: Yes, as a matter of fact, those who were squatting there consider in the end they really won the battle because the whole area was preserved and in fact there is remediation going on there now (in the Maplewoood Flats Conservation Area). I’m just so happy that’s how it turned out.
North Shore News: But then you look across the water and still see the oil refinery that Malcolm Lowry and Helen Simpson (among others) despised so much. In some ways nothing has changed.
Jean Walton: Bridgeview is still a working-class neighbourhood and in many ways it’s also similar to the ’60s and ’70s in that a lot of immigrants settle there. I think people begin in Bridgeview and when they feel a little better off they move away but there’s always some part of the population that wants to stay for one reason or another. It is difficult because (the area) is surrounded by all the toxic stuff going on and most recently the perimeter highway went through and cut off part of the neighbourhood – and yet people feel attached to where they’ve been living for awhile.
I think part of the book is a meditation on feeling attached to the place you are living in and what does that mean but also how do different people deal with the threat hovering over them that they might be evicted? The squatters on the North Shore sort of thought that out living in that kind of uncertainty whereas the working-class residents of course didn’t want to feel like they were about to be kicked out.
Jean Walton talks about Mudflats Dreaming at several events this week:
Vancouver Historical Society (Museum of Vancouver, 110 Chesnut Street, Vancouver), Thursday, April 25, 7:30 p.m. Jean Walton lecture: “Waterfront Battles and the Squatters who Fought Them in 1970s Vancouver.” All lecture events are free (admission by donation), open to the public (vancouver-historical-society.ca).
Surrey City Centre Library (10350 University Drive. [Room 405]), Friday, April 26, 2 p.m.“Some People Had to Suffer: Riverfront Activism ‘Down on the Flats’ in 1970s Surrey.” Jean Walton reads from Mudflat Dreaming: Waterfront Battles and the Squatters who Fought Them in 1970s Vancouver (New Star Books, 2018). This book tells the story of hippie squatters on the North Shore of Vancouver and working class residents in Surrey’s riverside neighbourhood of Bridgeview who came to feel like “squatters,” always on the verge of eviction. This reading will focus on suburban land use on a volatile flood plain, welfare and youth programs, NFB film activism, and Scrapyard Art in Surrey of the 1970s (surreylibraries.ca).
People’s Co-op Bookstore (1391 Commercial Drive), Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m. Jean Walton reading and book signing (newstarbooks.com/author.php?author_id=8909).