I fully admit to being deeply troubled by the painful rhetoric between cottagers and permanent residents across Ontario. This is one part of COVID-19 which was somewhat unexpected and from my personal perspective, challenging.
You probably know of this discussion and the passion it has produced. Many rural residents and politicians across cottage country have made their thoughts known in similar ways. The presence of cottagers, leaving their primary homes to move to their seasonal residences, is causing tension.
It reached the point where a municipality refused to connect cottages to water systems and in one cottage area, a Section 22 Order by the local medical officer of health told cottage owners they were not permitted to go to their seasonal properties under severe penalty.
Indigenous communities across Canada closed their borders, which is their right, in order to protect their own communities.
Before anyone starts warming up their computer to write a letter challenging what has been done, I suggest you sit down, take a deep breath and do some research. Everything which has been done so far to protect communities has been done according to the laws of Canada and Ontario.
But none of that answers the question, Why? Why is there such a strong reaction to COVID-19 restrictions in the first place and what is it that people are really objecting to?
Late last week, Ashleigh Weeden, a PhD candidate in Rural Studies in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph, put out an insightful three minute video on YouTube about what she describes as “the complicated tensions in cottage country”.
Weeden, although a resident of Guelph, has worked in Grey County an d her family have been cottagers for a generation or more in Bruce County.
Weeden points out that almost all of the discussion of cottagers coming to rural areas tends to be seen from the point of cottagers. This perspective makes those who live in a community year round “just part of the landscape.” She goes on to day that we shouldn’t see this as “us versus them” or “rural versus urban” but “how our individual actions have community consequences and how we can make sure we are taking good care of each other.”
Secondly, she points out that rural communities are “relatively delicate ecosystems”, be it health care capacity during COVID-19 or the ability of stores to provide for the local community outside of traditional vacation periods. She also reminds us of the increased community anxiety and devastation when there is an outbreak of COVID-19 at a local long term care home. Everyone is affected because everyone is interconnected. We know each other, and if we don’t we probably know someone who knows someone. The circle of community is not that large. Our rural community, including our indigenous community is, proportionally, much older than urban communities and at much, much higher risk.
Weeden’s final comment on many of the actions taken by rural communities is simple.
“Rural Canada definitely wants to welcome you with open arms when it’s safe to do so, but that time just isn’t here yet. In the meantime, let’s stay home, stay safe and take good care of each other.”
I like this. It asks for respect of rural community. It names something I had not thought of, our anxiety over rural fragility. And a way of seeing our way forward is offered to us in a simple and gentle way.
I understand that this time is hard. I know it’s not yet over. I know we don’t like to be told “No, you can’t do that.” But we can be strong and we can be safe. Our lives will change, probably in ways we can’t even imagine now.
Ashleigh Weeden’s words bear repeating again and again. “Stay home, stay safe and take good care of each other.”
David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound.