Finn Slough residents fight to keep homes that were never theirs

Gus Jacobson at Finn Slough

It’s a late-autumn evening and Gus Jacobson maneuvers his pickup truck down Dyke Road, a single lane access, past the net lofts and fishing shacks of the Village of Finn Slough.

Once the road ends just above the swirling eddies where the Fraser River meets the Pacific Ocean, he’ll loop around and follow the track back along Finn Slough where he’ll pull his pickup close to his shed and unload two tubs of salmon to sell the next day.

But tonight, a gleaming BMW idles in the dead end. Jacobson leans on the horn, and the driver responds with a middle finger. Jacobson eases his 78-year old frame out of his truck, and gripping a metal wrench to appear menacing, ambles toward the car.

The BMW jolts into motion, tires and gravel spinning. Then 30 feet away, it yanks to a stop. The driver opens his door, tosses out fast food wrappers, and yells profanity, including a word that riles Jacobson, “squatters.”

“We’re not squatters,” Jacobson hollers . “My grandfather was here in 1892, and we’re not going away.”

But, this is far from certain. Even if the ownership of Finn Slough is settled, it may be too late.

If the provincial government goes ahead with building a $4.5 billion, 10-lane, high-altitude bridge to replace an aging tunnel east of Finn Slough, the historic site and its inhabitants, and the surrounding farmland, river estuaries and their wildlife, will be put at risk.

Finn Slough, 2019

“This is the last fishing village in all of Metro Vancouver and one of the last in BC,” said Finn Slough historian David Dorrington, who lives at the slough “If it goes, we’ll have lost an irreplaceable piece of our history.”

Finn slough is a 100-yard estuary that rises and falls with the tides parallel to the Fraser River.

The north bank of the slough runs along the City of Richmond’s dikes which were built to protect farmland from floods.

The south bank is on Whitworth Island (also called Gilmour Island) which hugs the Fraser River and is reached by a foot bridge originally built in 1907.

As well as net sheds and fishing huts, tiny wooden homes perched on stilts or logs above the high tide mark dot the slough’s banks. The slough’s population of 25 lives here.

Jacobson, a burly, somber, 78-year old, is widely considered one of Finn Slough’s elder statesmen. He grew up here, playing in the tidal marshes and mud flats, learning to fish and make a living on the river.

Jacobson’s grandfather and other Finnish settlers immigrated to Canada in the 1890s to work in the booming fishing industry in fishing industry in Steveston, a village west along the Fraser River in Richmond, a city 20 miles south of Vancouver.

They bought acreages near the Fraser River to farm, and they built modest farm houses.

They also began tying up their fishing boats at a small, tidal estuary nearby.

To protect their boats and provide cover when mending nets, the Finns built shelters on stilts and log booms. Some built decks and small living quarters. The area became known as Finn Slough.

When they weren’t fishing, the Finns planted orchards, berry and vegetable fields, and raised families.

For generations, they docked their fishing boats at Finn Slough, mending their nets, repairing their shacks and staying overnight during salmon runs.

Finn Slough low tide

They heated with propane or wood. In the 1930s, the City of Richmond connected them to water. In the 1940s, electricity came.

Life continued peacefully for a century until 1993, when an Ontario developer, Steven Smith of Smith Prestige Properties, appeared with documents showing he had bought the title to Whitworth Island.

Smith aimed to submit plans to the City of Richmond to develop condominium towers and a marina on Finn Slough, according to Dorrington.

“He claimed we were squatters and he planned to evict us,” said Dorrington.

“We had to hire a lawyer which we couldn’t afford.”

To help fund the fight against eviction, the Finn Slough Heritage and Wetland Society was formed. Word spread that the unique community of ramshackle buildings and old boats was at risk of being destroyed.

Photographers, painters, historians, Sunday drivers and the media began turning up.

Suddenly Finn Slough was a destination, a haven of tranquility, hidden away at the edge of farmland. Although just a mile from a freeway and a major shopping mall, it felt like the back of the beyond.

Visitors were enchanted by the sense of connectivity to the past and the sight of history unfolding in front of them.

They eagerly watched the daily life of a working fishing village. This included the feats of Jacobson and his friend, Ray Galawan. The pair would take to the Fraser River in a dinghy to hook logs that had broken away from a boom and floated downstream for anyone to claim.

Like a ballet in slow motion, the men, muscled and fast, would hook a log as it swept past.

They would ride the current to help guide the slippery behemoth into Finn Slough. Then, with brute strength and using a system of pulleys only they understood, they would hang the log to dry alongside a shed.

Later, they would split and chop the log into firewood to use for heat or sell for cash.

Despite widespread support for Finn Slough, the struggle with Steven Smith continued. He said everyone on Whitworth Island was squatting.

“We disagreed. We believed we were on Crown land during most of the year, and during king tides, when homes and boat sheds are surrounded by water, we’re technically not on any land,” said Dorrington.

Smith said they had no right to be there.

“If we weren’t supposed to be here, why does Richmond provide us with water and garbage collection for a fee and also accept our annual donation in lieu of taxes?” asked Dorrington.

The fight dragged on and Smith got the federal port authority involved.

Finn Slough representatives asked the port authority to grant them a lease. But this was more complicated than expected.

As Dorrington explains, under riparian law, a landowner such as Smith has the right of access to their property. If a structure blocks the way, the landowner can ask for its removal.

The port authority refused to give the village a lease without Smith’s permission, even though Finn Slough  predates the port authority.

“It was as though the Finnish history here didn’t exist,” said Dorrington.

In 2000, residents attended a City of Richmond meeting to try to resolve land tenure issues. Here, the jurisdictional levels were clarified.

City representatives explained that the highest level of government, the federal government through Port Metro Vancouver (PMV), controls land between the Fraser River’s (and its estuaries and sloughs) high and low water marks.

The provincial government controls and owns foreshore land. This meant Finn Slough is on Crown land.

The province also controls the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which protects five per cent of land in British Columbia for farming. Whitworth Island is in the ALR and condominiums and marinas are not a permitted use.

Whitworth Island is also in the City of Richmond’s Environmentally Sensitive Areas Plan, which prohibits development that would cause habitat loss and damage to fish and wildlife.

Ray Galawan and Gus Jacobson on the 1930s Eva

At the city meeting, Finn Slough villagers said since they were being called squatters, they were claiming squatters rights and could prove they had an association with the area going back to 1900.

They also asked if they could lease the dike under from the City of Richmond. The City referred them back to the port authority, which tabled the file.

Steven Smith gave up and went back to Ontario. Donations helped pay the Finn Slough’s $100,000 legal bill.

The villagers returned to their quiet, environmentally sustainable lifestyles, recycling, using composting toilets, and making their living off what the river brought them or on nearby farms or as artists or part-time care-givers or carpenter’s assistants.

The village was largely forgotten until the Premier’s announcement of the new bridge, the largest in the province’s history.

Initially, the Premier claimed she had unilaterally decided to build the bridge to solve traffic problems caused by the aging George Massey Tunnel, which funnels commuters under the Fraser River heading north to Vancouver, and traffic south to and from the Canada – U.S. border crossing.

“Congestion at the tunnel is frustrating for families and stalling the economy,” the Premier said.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who learned about the bridge from a provincial government news release, disagreed.

“A more environmentally friendly option is to twin the tunnel,” Mayor Brodie said. “What the bridge is really about is the expansion of Port Metro Vancouver.”

With the tunnel gone, the Fraser River could be dredged. This would open up the river for deep-draft Panamax tankers to get upstream to the Fraser Surrey Docks.

At the docks, the tankers would pick up dilbit, a mixture of oil and petroleum, transported from the Alberta tar sands by Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain Pipeline as well as coal and then head out to Asia, where PMV annually trades $200 billion in goods with more than 170 countries.

PMV has been preparing for this expansion for years. In 2009, it secretly began buying farmland in the ALR near the Fraser River to use as a land bank for future industrial use related to shipping.

“This is Richmond’s most productive farmland but the Port can rezone it into industrial land without consulting the City of Richmond or local residents,” said Richmond City councillor and agrologist, Harold Steves who helped establish the ALR in 1973.

The Fraser River is also the world’s largest salmon-producing river and its estuaries, including the Finn Slough,  provide habitat to migratory birds, seals and sea lions.

Yet the federal government has dismantled the Fraser River Estuary Management program, a federal government agency founded in 1985 to protect and improve the environment of the Fraser River wetlands.

Its responsibilities have been turned over to PMV, whose board of directors is chosen by industry groups and then appointed by the federal government.

This is a conflict of interest according to Steves, who, along with Mayor Brodie opposes the building of the bridge, which will include a 28-lane, three-level interchange.

The community is concerned about noise and light pollution from the bridge and also pollution from tankers more than 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide carrying toxic materials.

“Just one small spill would have serious implications,” said Steves.

Ray Gallawan

Once again, the villagers of Finn Slough don’t have a say even though their lives could be turned upside down by the development.

“Thus has the potential to destroy the slough,” said Jacobson.

For the most part, the community is keeping quiet, trying to stay off the radar of PMV, which considers them squatters.

“Commerce is the port authority’s priority,” said Mayor Brodie, a supporter of saving farmland and the natural environment. Under his leadership, the City began referring to Finn Slough as a Heritage Area. This doesn’t confer any official status since PMV is a higher level of government.

Three’s at least one person willing to fight for official heritage status.

On a recent chilly evening, Gus Jacobson fired up his truck to head to his job as a part-time night watchman for the Steveston Harbour Authority. After a lifetime of working, he’s too poor to retire.

He’s also not backing down from the epic struggle to save Finn Slough.

“I’m going to apply to UNESCO to get world heritage status for Finn Slough. It costs $10,000 to apply and I think I can raise it,” Jacobson said.

Old fish boat, Finn Slough