Every summer for the last 14 years, I’ve received a generous offer from a dear friend to join him on his water-front property on Lake Huron. And every summer, I have resisted.
The truth is, I’ve never understood the draw of the natural world — even the tame cottage country version of it. The idea of escaping the city for a few weeks in the summer to get a dose of sun, water, and the outdoors remains the ultimate Canadian mystery. There’s something strange and messianic in the way my friend — and he’s not alone in doing so — makes the offer, as if my Canadian soul will not be saved until I’ve joined this particular congregation of cottage-dwelling summer people.
I must admit that my inner anthropologist longs to learn more about this particular cultural practice of middle-class (and mostly white) Canadians.
Why, for example, do different parts of the country refer to the summer home in different words? It’s a cottage in Ontario but a cabin in Alberta and a chalet in the British Columbia interior. After all, since arriving in Canada in 1996, I’ve participated in so many other national rituals, from digging out my shorts and sandals the minute the temperature hits 15°C to checking the weekend paper to see which wine I can buy for less than $20 while still maintaining the illusion of being a connoisseur. Still, lines have to be drawn somewhere.
“Does my discomfort in nature make me less Canadian? Many of my friends believe so. But that association between the outdoors and Canadianness needs to be recalibrated.”
As a city person, I’ve figured out how to navigate avenues, side streets, public transportation, and private cars without getting lost and with my safety intact (to date). The countryside’s roads are not only winding and confusing, but they contain many dangers in broad daylight: bears, coyotes, creepy insects, snakes, and even wolves. Perhaps it’s all those fairy-tales I grew up on that associated the woods with danger, but I glimpse nature and I see a threat I can’t fend off. It’s a language I never learned.
Does my discomfort in nature make me any less Canadian? Many of my friends believe so. My retort depends on who has levelled that charge at me. If they’re not readers of Canadian literature, my usual response is: look who’s talking. You can’t be Canadian if you don’t read Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, or Austin Clarke. Ditto if you don’t love Toronto, Canada’s greatest city; if you don’t use its wonderful public library system or recognize the beauty of its skyline on a hot summer night. The association between the outdoors and Canadianness needs to be recalibrated — for reasons both personal and political.
For one thing, this way of defining what it means to be Canadian is anchored in a country that tends to see itself in one colour: white. Our demographics have changed so radically in the last five decades that, currently, one in five Canadians identifies as a visible minority, a figure that could climb as high as one in three by 2036. Realtors who specialize in Ontario’s luxury cottage market suggest that new Canadians are more likely to buy property there if their children have been invited to one. While on one hand this proves social mobility, on the other it confirms the “old stock” connotations of the cottage, which remains a private club to which new Canadians must be initiated.
Such strong identification with the cottage as a path to becoming a proper Canadian is as reductive a picture of this country in 2018 as the images of a Mountie or a wily beaver on a dishcloth. Nearly 82 per cent of Canadians live in what Statistics Canada defines as a large or medium-sized town. More than a third of our population of 36 million is based in just three cities: Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. We’re an urban country. There’s danger when we attach so much of our national identity to what a select few among early settlers in Canada did for leisure and what their descendants feel obliged to carry on doing. It shares an eerie resemblance to the politicized nostalgia for a better, now-gone time that fuels the fires of populist movements around the world.
“As the rest of the cottage brigade vacates the city, my streets are quieter and I have a better shot at getting a reservation at my local trattoria on short notice.”
Another part of me is also aware of an important conversation among historians and Indigenous people in which cottage country is cast as “this empty, pristine landscape that has been set aside for the unique use of vacationers from the city,” as Humber College history professor Peter Stevens recently told the CBC, and not as the homeland of different Indigenous peoples who have been there for centuries.
But what baffles me most about Canadians’ love of nature is that it doesn’t necessarily translate to a meaningful regard for the environment. I’m writing this as Doug Ford, the leader of the provincial Conservatives in Ontario, was seen on video promising to phase out legislation to protect Toronto’s Greenbelt in order to build more housing, leading to more suburban sprawl. (He has since backtracked, but probably only because the video leaked.) British Columbia had to refer the Trans Mountain pipeline to its highest court to determine its authority to issue permits that regulate oil transport within the province and mitigate the effects of potentially catastrophic spills in its waters.
No doubt many in the oil and gas industry love their cabins and other country getaways but see no contradiction in putting large swaths of the natural world in danger of spillage or other environmental risks at the same time. A 2014 study by the Ontario government highlighted the pressures that cottage developments (including campgrounds) put on the quality of water and the risk of invasive species in Algonquin Provincial Park. The drive to and from the lake, the gas-guzzling boats, and the poor insulation of older cottages also exact a large environmental cost that we ignore when retreating to the cottage.
So forgive me while I spend the next three months firmly planted in Toronto, taking advantage of its festivals, patios, and modest versions of nature (the labyrinthine ravine system). As the rest of the cottage brigade vacates the city, my streets are quieter and I have a better shot at getting a reservation at my local trattoria on short notice. They have their summer refuge, and I have mine.