Decolonizing cottage country

Indigenous communities are increasingly asserting their treaty rights in areas where affluent white Ontarians spend their summers
By Adam McDowell - Published on Jun 28, 2018
Traditionally, Indigenous people were absent from the idealized image of the Ontario cottage. (



The cottage is a distinctive and easily recognizable symbol of summer living in this province — think Muskoka chairs, rugged vistas, ripples on the lake. And it’s an element of Ontario culture that has attracted the interest of academics, some of whom have observed that Indigenous people are often excluded from depictions of cottage life.

Toronto-based historian Peter A. Stevens wrote earlier this year that insofar as cottage owners, who are predominately white and middle- or upper-class, have acknowledged the original inhabitants of the land, “they adopted decontextualized symbols of a generic Indian-ness” that betrayed a poor understanding of First Nations in Ontario — placing West Coast totem poles at Muskoka retreats, for example.

Now, several years into a national conversation about reconciliation and decolonization, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for cottagers to ignore the fact that Indigenous peoples have their own claims on cottage country — often in a literal sense.

In some parts of the province, First Nations are the landlords and cottagers are the tenants. Most of the hundreds of thousands of cottages across Ontario are located on former Crown land that was privatized decades ago, but roughly 3,000 cottages sit on land leased from First Nations.

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In many cases, these tenant-cottagers pay little rent. Some First Nations leaders have tried to improve the terms of these leases — by hiking rents to generate more revenue, for example. Others have evicted cottagers from the land altogether. Says Stevens: “You’ve got rejuvenated pride amongst First Nations, [and some] are saying, ‘You know what? We’ve been given so little land to begin with, and we’re leasing it to these white cottagers. Why don’t we use some of it for ourselves in order to nurture our relationship to the land?’”

Hope Bay, on the Bruce Peninsula, provided an early example of a protracted mass-eviction process. In 1995, the 30-year leases for 68 cottages expired and were not renewed, and in 2006, the cottagers were told they couldn’t return. The case involved legal entanglements that were straightened out only last year.

In cases where Indigenous people have asserted other treaty rights, some cottagers have bristled at the resultant disruptions. James Whetung, for example, a member of Curve Lake First Nation, north of Peterborough, made international headlines when he reintroduced wild-rice cultivation to local lakes in the Kawarthas. He said he was reviving a traditional Anishinaabe practice — but cottagers have complained that the plants get in the way of their boats.

Animosity isn’t a given in these situations, however, says playwright and fellow Curve Lake member Drew Hayden Taylor. He found enough humour in the wild-rice dispute to base a comedy on it. The play, Cottagers and Indians, brought Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre company considerable media attention this year. (Taylor says it will return to the stage this fall in such cottage-country locales as Bobcaygeon and Parry Sound; in Toronto, Tarragon will stage the play again next year.)

Taylor’s hope is that audiences will be inspired to approach the challenges of reconciliation with openness and humour. Earlier this year, at Tarragon, he says, one audience member — who owned a property near Curve Lake — “came to see the play because he was nervous about his cottage. He was wondering if there were going to be land claims [and] lawsuits, and he wanted to see what was going on so he would know how to prepare himself.”

By the time the curtain fell, Taylor says, “I’m hoping he understood where James [Whetung] is coming from.”

For proof that coexistence is possible, consider the case of the roughly 1,200 cottagers who lease their lots from members of Saugeen First Nation, 30 minutes west of Owen Sound on the shores of Lake Huron. Leaseholder and retiree Rob McLaughlin serves as secretary-treasurer of the Saugeen Cottagers’ Organization, which represents some 620 of the cottagers. He says it’s the country’s largest recreational lease arrangement involving a First Nation. Ten years ago, the Globe and Mail reported that the First Nation’s leadership was considering evicting cottagers so the land could be redeveloped to facilitate more profitable ventures, but the idea was shelved.

McLaughlin says that, today, relations between the band and the cottagers are “cordial.” The last time the leases came up for renewal, in 2011, the Indigenous owners declined to renew just three of them. More recently, the cottagers’ association donated $80,000 to a fund supporting members of the First Nation working toward their high-school equivalency.

If there’s an adversarial relationship to be found in the region, it’s between the cottagers and the First Nation on one side and the federal government on the other. Two departments in Ottawa oversee the Saugeen Shore leasing arrangements; they will do so until the Saugeen changes its land-management system over to the First Nations Land Management Act, which allows for greater local control than the Indian Act did.

When that happens, the cottagers will be able to negotiate leasing directly with the leaders of Saugeen First Nation. McLaughlin hopes the new system will be in place by the time his membership’s leases come up for renewal again, in 2021. “We have a good relationship with [the band council],” he says. “We know them, they know us, and the leases [will be] created to fit the circumstances here” — rather than being drawn up in Ottawa, which McLaughlin says can be a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

Despite the attention that disagreements between Indigenous people and cottagers have been getting, the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations, Terry Rees, says those sorts of problems are relatively rare. He acknowledges, however, that some localized clashes are inevitable, given the kinds of issues that reconciliation brings to the fore — including land-claim processes, dozens of which are underway across Ontario and could conceivably affect cottagers.

“This is going to be how reconciliation works,” he says. “We’re all going to have to figure out what that means … It’s a process.”

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