Bursting the bubble: squatter’s rights

Dreaming of going off the grid for a winter and holing up in a DIY ski shack somewhere just out of view? Legal columnist Robyn Goldsmith explains that the alluring fantasy of squatting on the land isn't a reality.

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Cabin at Lindeman Lake, photo by Anthony DeLorenzo, creative commons licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.

There’s a certain romance to the idea of finding a quiet spot in the woods and building a cabin from local timber, cozying up, living off grid, dodging rent, and living the dream. For the uninitiated, Dick Proenneke’s Alone in the Wilderness will almost certainly spark in you the desire to jump ship on modern conveniences and retreat to the wilderness.

If you set up in the woods, no one can kick you off the land, right? Squatter’s rights mean you can stay, right? Wrong. Sorry to break hearts, but squatter’s rights aren’t really a thing — at least not in B.C. I’ve heard a lot of variations of, “I’m going to build a cabin in the woods and no one can take it down because of squatter’s rights.” In this era of tiny houses and minimalist idealism, the idea that you could simply plunk down a structure is appealing. In truth, squatter’s rights are almost completely obsolete in B.C.

There is a doctrine in law called ‘adverse possession’, which is the legal principle behind so-called squatter’s rights. The BC Limitation Act states that unless a right to land came into effect prior to July 1, 1975, “no right or title in or to land may be acquired by adverse possession.” What does that mean? Well, if you don’t already have your cabin built and set up, and didn’t before 1975, you’re out of luck. Even if you did build a cabin last century, you are going to have to show that you were on that land for a continuous period prior to 1975. If the land is Crown land, you would need to be able to prove that you continuously and exclusively occupied the land for 60 years prior to July 1st, 1975. For private land, you would need to show 20 years of continuous and exclusive possession prior to July 1st, 1975. If you can’t prove that, you have no right to occupy Crown land or privately owned land.

The idea that you can build a cabin in the woods and that the government can’t ask you to take it down is a myth with roots in outdated law. If you want to (legally) build Crown land, you’re going to need a permit. Otherwise, you run the risk that you will need to remove your woodsy dream and you’ll be back at square one. You could also be fined and will be asked to essentially make the land how it was when you found it.