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Brian Sereda, 58, has lived on his boat for almost 20 years, most of them at False Creek. The wrinkles that radiate from his eyes are hard and deep; his smile is almost toothless. “Back then,” he says of his early days as a live-aboard, “I could walk everywhere. It was easy to pick up fresh food, or beer. I could walk to VGH in 10 minutes if I needed help.”
Born in Winnipeg, Sereda was raised in Thompson, Manitoba, by an “alcoholic and gamble-holic” father who was once shot in a dispute over a card game. Sereda dropped out of high school to help support the family (he has seven brothers and sisters) before a stint peddling dope in Winnipeg. A run-in with law enforcement scared him straight, and he spent the next two decades wandering across the Prairies from one town to another, much of that time living in the cramped confines of a fifth-wheel trailer. Expo 86 brought him to Vancouver.
After working as a labourer and saving his money for several years, he bought the 40-foot boat he still calls home. The boat, light blue, is long and low, the deck and roof flat; it looks not unlike the houseboats that churn around Shuswap Lake in summer.
Injured numerous times on construction sites, Sereda now scrapes by on a meagre pension and odd jobs; these days he keeps his boat tied to a decrepit dock up the muddy Fraser, at Shelter Island, 10 kilometres from the ocean. This is a working river-tugs and barges ride or fight the current, serving the dozens of warehouses and industrial facilities that line its banks. It’s not a setting he loves. “Now I have to take three buses just to shop in Whalley,” he says, over a pint at Tidewaters Pub under the soaring span of the Alex Fraser Bridge in the no-man’s-land between Delta and Surrey. “I hate Whalley.”
Sereda looks back on his stay at False Creek with fondness: neighbours looked after each other, shared meals, drank together. During the early years, he felt unfettered. The Canada Shipping Act gave jurisdiction to the Vancouver Port Authority. The act allowed boaters to anchor in False Creek as long as they didn’t present a hazard to marine traffic, but it provided no enforceable restrictions. Not that it mattered much-the port authority had neither the resources nor the inclination to police the creek, which had ceased being an active port many years earlier.
But restrictions were looming. For a while, about 40 live-aboards banded together to form the False Creek Anchoring Out Society to fight back. Over the years the creek had grown busier as condos and marinas sprang up, attracting recreational boaters. One summer Sunday in 2001, more than 1,200 vessels were counted entering or leaving; as many as 60 anchored in False Creek. There was no way to know how many of them had been abandoned or who to contact if one went adrift. At public consultations, respondents equated the live-aboard situation at False Creek to unlimited camping in city parks.
In August 2000, the port authority transferred management of False Creek to the City of Vancouver, which sought to modify the shipping act. An amendment, put into effect in 2006, allows boaters to anchor for up to three weeks at a time, free of cost, provided they first obtain a permit. It also empowers the VPD Marine Division to fine boaters up to $500 for noncompliance.
Sereda calls the city’s ticketing scheme an eviction notice. False Creek had been effectively rezoned. “When they came in with the anchoring law, they gave me contacts for programs to help me adjust to living up top,” he recalls. “Those places were all on the East Side. I don’t go down there if I don’t have to, so I never go.”
Sereda views the new regulations as unconstitutional; he says his freedom has been unfairly restricted. Proponents point out that all boaters-not just the old-guard squatters-can now enjoy this unique aspect of the city. Sereda says that he’s essentially living off the grid, that his carbon footprint is negligible, that he’s providing a model for others in this supposedly green city to live by. Proponents counter that unlicensed boats are more likely to dump solid waste, to spill fuel, to drag anchor and damage other vessels; the new permit requires boaters to comply with environmental and safety standards. Sereda points to the Olympics and political exigencies for his forced relocation; proponents counter that consultations on the anchoring issue began long before VANOC came along.
And so goes the city’s evolution. False Creek, once a backwater that served as home to a ragtag bunch of live-aboards, has become a world-class boating destination, a marine park in the heart of Vancouver. Annual moorage fees for the biggest yachts at the marina in Yaletown run upwards of $10,000. High-tech millionaires and stockbrokers and real-estate developers guide sleek, burbling vessels in and out of the creek while VPD patrols monitor the dwindling number of craft that drop anchor between Granville Island and the Cambie Bridge.
For his part, Brian Sereda still plans to chug down the Fraser and stop in at False Creek for a couple of weeks later this summer, hoping to run into old friends.