The encampment along the Eramosa River has some of the characteristics of a home.
There is a wood-burning stove, a thin trail of smoke rising from it in the damp morning. There are three rooms made from pitched tents, all enclosed by a circle of cedar boughs. Until the fall arrived, those boughs camouflaged the squatters camp, kept it mostly hidden amidst the surrounding shrubbery.
Inside the circle, there are places to hang cooking utensils and knapsacks, a place to store survival tools, and areas for things that need to be kept out of the rain.
About half a kilometer east of Victoria Road, close to the railroad tracks and a stone’s throw from the Eramosa River, this fairly secluded camp has been home to as many as nine people for eight months or more. The wear and tear on the land shows.
From the circular enclosure, a path leads to another section where, up until early this week, three very well used tents – insulated, stuffed with personal belongings, and apparently ready for winter – were set back in the shrubs.
The path extends to a common area within a stand of pine trees, where a row of plastic chairs is neatly set in front of a fire pit.
In the center of the encampment there are signs of packing up and getting out. Bags of belongings, bags of garbage, things charred and in need of disposal, are ready for removal. The law has stepped in, and the camp is being shut down.
Joanna Couture is among the inhabitants of this unusual settlement. She has been here with her boyfriend Richard for several months, but others have been here longer, she said earlier this week. The campers have to be out this week.
If it were not for this home along the river, all would be homeless, Couture said, as she tried to come to terms with the fact that she would have to leave her outdoor camp and begin a thankless search for something cheap in the city. She was in a gloomy mood.
Joanna is the daughter of the late Joseph Couture, an author, thinker, and much respected aboriginal elder and traditional healer. He was one of the first aboriginal people in Canada to earn a Ph.D. He died in 2007, and his writings were collected and published in the book A Metaphoric Mind that same year.
Couture said she came from a life of relative luxury, and inherited a sum of money after her father’s death. She used the money to travel, and to live a carefree life. The money ran out. Various struggles lead to homelessness.
“We came here in mid-August,” she said while sitting in the enclosure. Bobhe Quinn, a more recent arrival, was sitting with her. Quinn and his girlfriend live in one of the tents.
“I guess this camp has been here for a couple of years, on and off,” said Couture. Quinn added that a man known as “Rabbit” started the camp up in the spring, after it had sat idle for a time.
Couture said the site is not the only one of its kind in the Guelph area. There are others in local woods, places where individuals or a small group live permanently, at least until they are chased off.
“We had this vision of something under spruce trees, and these trees here just fit the mold,” she said. The overhanging pine and spruce boughs serve as a roof. “You want to be near water, and close to some amenities, but not too close. It’s sort of wildernessy, but not too wildernessy. But not enough, apparently. People complained about us. I don’t know why.”
Until recently, it appears the camp was tolerated, or perhaps overlooked. But orders of eviction have come from on high in recent days.
The land is owned, according to a University of Guelph official, by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario (ARIO), a corporate body reporting directly to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Inquiries made to the ministry on Wednesday were not immediately responded to.
According to the OMAFRA website, ARIO advocates for research for the betterment of agriculture, veterinary medicine and consumer studies, and works to ensure production efficiency and marketing of agricultural products by stimulating interest in research.
The encampment is accessible along the popular Guelph Radial Line Trail, a hiking, running, and dog walking trail that extends for about 40 km, meeting up with Bruce Trail.
Recently, new ‘No Trespassing’ signs have been placed along the trail, and along connecting trails at the east end of the sprawling Guelph Turfgrass Institute lands, which is owned by ARIO. The institute is in the process of moving to U of G lands west of Victoria Road.
It appears a message is being sent to anyone who has a mind to camp overnight on the land. A recent walking tour of the property found several other small campsites on the property, all hidden from view.
“It’s very quiet and clean here,” said Couture, 40, adding that the old cast-iron stove was found in another campsite not far away. She said her boyfriend prefers to live outdoors. They were planning to spend the winter in the encampment.
Couture said she was evicted from her last apartment, and spent a long time couch-surfing. For now, the camp is the closest thing she has to a home.
“I came to Guelph because I thought it was a place for resources and opportunity,” said Quinn, 31. He moved to the city about a year and half ago after he “lost everything” in Mount Forest, where he comes from.
“I lost my little girl to the CAS (Children’s Aid Society), and that was hard,” he said. “I got some counselling, started feeling better about myself, and then I got an apartment. I went back to Mount Forest to get my girlfriend. She was living in a tent up there in the winter.”
Quinn and his girlfriend ended up homeless after conflict broke out with other residents of the shared apartment they were living in.
Quinn had moved eight times in recent months. He said about half a dozen cheap apartments – places he and his girlfriend can afford on social assistance – come up each month. And there are 50 people trying to rent them. Finding affordable housing is nearly impossible in Guelph, he and Couture said.
The encampment was visited about 10 days ago by the U of G’s Campus Police, Couture said. They were followed by the Guelph Police and city bylaw enforcement officers.
After some investigation, it turned out the land on which the encampment sits may actually be owned by Canadian National Railway, Couture said. Nevertheless, the squatters were given three days to leave. That deadline was later extended to the end of November.
“But where are we going to go?” Quinn asked. “Where can we go where we won’t just be asked to move again?”
He added that all of the residents of the encampment use social agencies in the downtown, where they access food pantries, meal programs, counselling services, and the library.
“We don’t know why they want us to leave,” said Couture.
“We were never told the complaint,” Quinn added. “We asked why we had to leave and they just said there was a complaint made.”
With winter approaching, the campers aren’t sure where they will go, or how they will survive.