Canmore man has been squatting on public land for years and says it's a form of protest

James Louden began living in a makeshift cabin on public land north of Canmore in 2014. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC - image credit)
James Louden began living in a makeshift cabin on public land north of Canmore in 2014. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC - image credit)

A Canmore man who has been squatting on public land for years says he has no plans to stop, despite the protest landing him in front of a judge this week.

"If society will not leave space for the poor to live, then the poor ought to take the space they need," said James Louden, 50, a dishwasher and poet.

Louden says he began living in a makeshift cabin on public land north of Canmore in 2014. He said it took him about a day to build the shelter, where he lived for seven years before being discovered by provincial conservation officers.

James Louden/Facebook
James Louden/Facebook

After refusing an order to vacate, officers and RCMP dismantled Louden's shelter last August. He was charged under the Public Lands Act.

The charge was withdrawn this week after the Crown determined there were aspects of the investigation that may not have been "procedurally compliant" and there was no public interest in proceeding with a trial.

"I'm just astonished," Louden told CBC News outside the courthouse Tuesday. "I think it's remarkable."

Wider problems of affordability

Paula Duhatschek/CBC
Paula Duhatschek/CBC

Former town councillor John Kende showed up at the courthouse to observe the case. Kende has taken an interest in Louden's situation, saying it speaks to wider problems of inequality and affordability that he's seen worsen over the decades.

"When we have a tremendous amount of tourism, a tremendous amount of well-to-do people who've got their second homes … we are producing more and more James types," said Kende, 87.

"The type of people who's got a minimum wage [income], or close to minimum wage, in a town which has been statistically the most expensive town, if not in Alberta only, but the whole of Canada."

There's no question that affordability is a major problem in Canmore.

Numbers tracked by Canmore Community Housing show that between 2020 and 2022, the average price of a two-bedroom rental went from $2,010 to $2,735.

The living wage in Canmore — the amount a person needs to live comfortably — is $32.75 an hour, the highest of all communities surveyed by the Alberta Living Wage Network.

And according to a Statistics Canada report published last summer, the town had the highest Gini index — a measure of economic inequality — of all urban centres in the country.

The problem is hitting even high-income earners these days, but it's made life untenable for those on the low-income end of the scale, Louden said.

He said he's not the only one camping in the woods these days, and wants the town to sanction space where people can safely stay for this purpose.

"If it's as basic as a campground, if it's just a tent with an electric heater, or an RV or a consistent spot to park, it is still better than people being homeless," he said.

Finding solutions

Paula Duhatschek/CBC
Paula Duhatschek/CBC

Canmore's chief administrative officer, Sally Caudill, said she hadn't been aware of Louden's protest but is well versed in the challenges the town faces around affordability and housing supply.

"As a municipal government, we're trying to do everything we can," said Caudill, though she said there are limits to what it can do on its own.

"Market rent, for example, is not something that we have any power to do anything about."

Caudill said some of the initiatives the town has put in place include:

  • Working with a community shelter to provide housing in the wintertime.

She said the town is working with builders and community groups to come up with solutions, and is open to hearing new ideas from members of the public.

"We're happy to try to partner, and looking for people to help us work on the problem together," she said.

As for Louden, he's still living on public land, this time in a teepee, though he declined to give the precise location.

He said the brush with the law hasn't dissuaded him from his one-man protest. He said he wants to see decision-makers think past temporary solutions — such as short-term shelters — and get to the root of the community's homelessness problem.

"The homeless don't need homeless shelters. They need shelter."