Making the Business of Life Easier

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The Outsiders
Winter: 1

Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story

By Margaret Philp with photographs by Patti Gower

The first snowfall turns Toronto into a picture-postcard city, the grime and garbage concealed beneath a crisp blanket of snow until the salt trucks turn the curbsides into rivers of filthy slush.

In the ravines, nearly a foot of fresh snow has dusted the trees and buried the forest floor, remaking the dull grey of bare branches and dead leaves into a fairyland of white.

The temperature has sunk far below zero, to the sort of blistering cold that seeps through winter jackets and bites fingertips through mitts and toes through boots.

At the edge of the ravine, footprints trail into the woods. Any shred of doubt that people remain in their wilderness sanctuaries to brave the Canadian winter evaporates with the tracks leading through the trees to snow-capped tents.

In the Rosedale Valley, a lone set of prints, crisscrossed by animal tracks, winds from the curb to a small clearing behind the trees. They stop at a squat lean-to of plywood so blanketed by snow that from the rear it looks like part of the forest floor.

From the front, it is a bunnyhole with a plywood floor covered by sheets of corrugated cardboard. Inside, a grey wool blanket and a thin floral bedspread lie in a heap. On the underside of the roof, printed boldly in black marker, are the words: "K. Clarke for Toronto Mayor" and "K. Clarke Toronto's Next Mayor."

In the days after the snowfall, prints appear in the woods surrounding other rivers and creeks. People have pitched camp not only in the Don Valley, but also in backyard ravines that meander through the city's suburbs.

On the southern edge of Etobicoke where Mimico Creek spills into Lake Ontario, another set of tracks has dented the virgin snow that covers a small ravine. They lead from the rear parking lot of a strip mall, cross a quaint bridge of wooden boards that span a narrow stream and jog beside the creek before turning sharply up a steep berm and ending at a cluttered campsite.

It is an idyllic setting on a cloudless winter day, the rushing water of the creek dappled with sunshine. At the edge of the compound, the letters BC have been inscribed in the snow with a stream of urine. There are piles of firewood, an old street sign.

Beyond is an enormous white tarp draped over a tall pole like a tepee, facing away from the creek. Inside, a bunker has been dug more than a metre deep into earth and shale, a meticulous excavation with four plumb walls that leave room to walk around a large bed and a rusty metal drum rigged as a wood stove. On the floor are sheets of plywood. The walls are lined with flattened corrugated cardboard boxes.

Boshko Cernic started digging out his bunker in November, when he was evicted from his tent in a patch of woods beside a nearby strip of low-budget motels by men clearing trees for the construction of a condominium tower.

He remembered walking by the creek a few years ago, stumbling on a shallow depression in the ground. He returned and started to dig, at first picking at the soil with scraps of metal. But then he found the rusted blade of a shovel missing its handle, and he painstakingly burrowed into the ground, gripping the tool in his hand like a garden trowel and hauling dirt away in a plastic bucket.

Centuries ago, this area was a wetland teeming with fish and wildlife. Mimico means the home of the wild pigeon in the language of the Mississauga tribe that once fished and hunted on the creek's banks, a nod to the flocks of passenger pigeons that nested here before being hunted to extinction.

Now, the creek is choked with heavy metals and petroleum residue from fertilizers sprayed on the manicured lawns upstream and the oil and grease from the roads.

In his tent metres from the creek's spring high-water mark, Boshko is chilled, lying as stiff as the cardboard walls under layers of blankets and sleeping bags. His arms are tucked close to his side and a blue knitted cap is pulled low over his eyes. He shivers awake for hours after crawling under the covers at night, but finally drifts to sleep and wakes with the morning light, feeling warm at last.

"I don't like it," he says of his life outdoors. "I find the winter beautiful, but that's usually when I'm feeling comfortable. But when I'm out in the cold, I'm preoccupied with my suffering. It's hard to appreciate the beauty when I'm cold."

Boshko is a strikingly handsome man, 37 years old, with clear blue eyes and a tousle of dark hair, a scraggly beard and smooth complexion that looks out of keeping with the stresses and strains of life in a numbingly cold, filthy hole in the ground. He is soft-spoken and articulate, choosing precise words before speaking.

He is painfully shy around people, to the point that his heart thumps wildly when he rides the streetcar, nearly paralyzed by self-consciousness about what appears to be an utterly ordinary body. He will battle the demons by taking his clothes off in public, deliberately exposing the body he loathes as self-prescribed therapy. He spent a few weeks in jail last year for stripping down and taking a shower in an outdoor fountain.

Here in the tent, he bothers no one. He can be alone with the mice whose claws scratch the cardboard as they scurry after his crumbs or the squirrel plundering the stash of walnuts collected in a bucket outside his door.

And here, he is sequestered from his parents who live in a house only blocks away, people he resents as being dour and repressed and whose loveless childrearing he blames for his state of being "emotionally disturbed."

They would occasionally visit him at his old tent. His mother would cry, pleading with him to come home or move in with a friend. "They're upset about it," Boshko says in a slow, bloodless monotone. "They say things, in their usual strategy of asking questions, like, 'Why are you living like this? Is this normal? Why don't you go and see a doctor?'"

Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story

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