As much of North America was locked down during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Matty Clarke was in a boat full of supplies, motoring up the Yukon River. He was searching for wild lands where he could strike it rich.
“Getting myself a goldmine,” he told viewers on his YouTube channel. “Everyone’s heard about all this gold up there. You must be curious yourself – what’s actually going on up there? Can I just show up with all this stuff and end up having a goldmine? I think so.”
For the last two years, Clarke has battled the bitter cold and relentless mosquitoes of the boreal forests as he set up a new home in Canada’s northern hinterlands, chronicling his survival in regular YouTube updates.
But he now finds himself squaring off against a new foe: a frustrated government trying to evict him from his homestead on Ensley Creek, south of the town of Dawson City.
The Yukon’s most famous poet once described the region as “unpeopled and still”, but despite its vast scale, the territory’s government says people can’t just show up to a clearing in the forest and build homes without permits.
Since last year, officials have been trying to get Clarke and another self-styled pioneer, Simon Tourigny, to leave. The territory says they are illegally occupying public land and have defied orders to vacate. They are now petitioning a court to intervene.
Originally from Newfoundland, Clarke operates a popular YouTube channel called “Skote outdoors”, which documented his 2020 journey up the Yukon River to stake a mining claim and a real-life tutorial on building a log cabin. In the videos, he is seen felling trees and chopping notches into the logs.
“This is the real dream for me here now,” he says in one video as he speeds along a snowy landscape on a snowmobile. “It’s a good life out here. Everyone told me it was going to be a real struggle. And it was … But the hard times are vastly outweighed by the good times.”
His videos often receive nearly 10,000 views – and the government has used them and his social media post as their evidence against him.
The territory alleges that Clarke had errors in his mining claim and permit – and says that officials saw no evidence of mining by the YouTuber.
“Even if Mr Clarke had honestly and properly staked the Claim, doing so did not give Mr Clarke authority under the [Placer Mining Act] or any other Yukon legislation to construct a cabin at the Site for his permanent residence,” said the government’s court petition.
In an email to a territorial land manager, Clarke says the fight is about more than one log cabin.
“I do not look at myself as a trespasser but a guardian or steward of the land,” he wrote. Clarke did not respond to a request for comment.
While his videos stress Clarke’s isolation – the second season of his show is called Alone in the Yukon – his cabin is less than a kilometre from Simon Tourigny’s, as well as those of two other squatters.
Tourigny, who sees himself as someone learning the “old skills” of backcountry living, arrived in the region in 2016 and admits he has no valid permits to occupy the land. But like Clarke, he has no intention of leaving.
Rather than fussing over bylaws and building codes, Tourigny has employed a more abstract defence, arguing in an editorial last year that his values were under attack.
“Which part of what we are doing is ‘unauthorized’? Our cabins or our lifestyles? They won’t say, either because they don’t know or because the truth cannot be admitted,” Tourigny wrote in the Yukon News. “Are we not allowed to exist in the forest?”
Tourigny, who the Guardian was unable to reach, says he and others “simply took responsibility for our own lives” and are “literally living the dream of millions”.
The letter kicked off fierce debate in the Yukon, with a subsequent letter from a resident calling Tourigny’s claims “whining, snivelling, self-righteous”.
Both Tourigny and Clarke have built their cabins on the land of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. While Tourigny has claimed “Every Indigenous person I’ve ever met seems to genuinely appreciate what I’m doing” the band has not made any public comment on their presence on the land.
Neither case has been heard in court yet, but the territorial government is requesting both Tourigny and Clarke be required to leave the land – and not be able to settle anywhere else in the territory without prior authority.
In his editorial, Tourigny suggests he is unwilling to back down.
“We are waiting to be arrested and forcibly taken to court to be put before a judge, the last person in a long line of people refusing to listen to us where fines or imprisonment await.”