The urban-rural divide heats up during COVID-19

The question of whether city dwellers should stay put or drive north on Victoria Day weekend has inflamed some long-standing tensions 
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 11, 2020
Public-health officials have been telling city dwellers with seasonal properties to stay home. (iStock.com/flyzone)

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Let’s state this right off the top: there is no provincial law preventing anyone who lives in a big city in Ontario from travelling to cottage country for this coming Victoria Day weekend. 

But that doesn’t mean you should do it. 

The question of whether to stay put or to enjoy the cottage this weekend has reminded people all over Ontario why the urban-rural divide can be so toxic. Under normal circumstances, people who live hours outside Toronto or Ottawa love to come to our provincial or national capitals to take in a show, a sporting event, a concert, or a tour of Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill. 

And city slickers adore getting away from the frequently frenetic pace of urban life to soak in the glorious natural beauty of rural or northern parts of the province. 

But when public-health officials tell city dwellers to stay home because they could bring trouble with them to more sparsely populated parts of Ontario, people on both sides of this argument begin to see red. 

Premier Doug Ford stirred up a Twitter hornet’s nest last week when, at one of his daily briefings, he confessed that he couldn’t keep city folk from going to the cottage — and wasn’t going to try to. 

“There’s only so long I can hold the gates back from these people,” he said (probably meaning to say that he could hold people back from the gates of rural and northern Ontario for only so long). 

The social-media maelstrom got exponentially worse when we learned that the premier, after having urged people not to visit their cottages, did so himself on the Sunday morning of Easter weekend. He clarified that he’d gone to Muskoka only to check the pipes. He didn’t stop to purchase any groceries, didn’t violate any physical-distancing protocols — he just went up, checked the plumbing, and came straight home. Apparently, some years ago, the pipes burst in the Ford family cottage, causing thousands of dollars in damage, and the premier wanted to ensure that there wouldn’t be a repeat performance, given the unseasonably cold temperatures lately. 

Ford’s visit provoked a strong debate about a couple of things: First, are there legitimate circumstances in which someone can visit their cottage? And, second: Is there a little political hypocrisy happening here? 

“The big deal is Doug made a big deal about not going to one’s cottage under any circumstances,” tweeted Steve Fleck, an engineer. “He was almost pleading with people to NOT go. Then, Doug went to HIS cottage. It’s all about tone and optics. Can you not see that?”

But others saw nothing wrong with the premier’s actions.

“For those fortunate enough to be able to afford more than one property, they have a duty essential to maintain those properties to standards espoused in community bylaws and to property insurance requirements,” tweeted Ed DeBruyn, from Hamilton Beach. “Restricting owners from that duty is wrong minded.” 

The arguments on both sides are pretty clear. If you own a property, pay municipal taxes on that property, and pay hydro fees on that property, shouldn’t you be able to use that property? 

“Cottage responsibly,” said someone on Twitter named Kova. “Bring all supplies and stay on your own property. If you feel sick — GO HOME. What’s the issue?”

Well, the issue is, what if the virus comes upon you suddenly, and you have to rely on the very finite resources of rural Ontario’s health-care system? What if you run out of food or supplies sooner than you think? We’ve heard plenty of stories about the difficulties the supply chains in more remote areas are facing. 

Not only that, but we’ve already heard stories of angry locals seeing licence plates from the bigger cities and then blasting visitors for showing up when they’ve been told not to. A First Nations reserve on Manitoulin Island has even set up checkpoints to stop cars and inquire about visitors’ intentions. Reserves all over the province are notoriously under-resourced when it comes to health-care services, so the concern about outsiders bringing a case of COVID-19 into their midst is hardly unwarranted.  The Nishnawbe Aski Nation task team continues to urge First Nations across the province not to ease or reopen their borders. 

The premier might have tossed a little gasoline on this already tense debate when he admitted to having sympathy for those who feel entitled to a property-tax rebate if they stay at home and don’t visit the cottage. 

“This is the wrong call,” tweeted Ashleigh Weeden, a self-described rural futurist and a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, adding that rural communities “rely on property taxes as the only real way of paying for key services ... This is catering to entitlement.” 

Someone named Chris from Peterborough added: “Cottage owners are near the bottom of the list of people who should be getting financial aid right now.” 

This is a vexing issue for local politicians in rural and northern Ontario. They’ve been hearing non-stop from people on both sides of the argument. Phil Harding, mayor of the Township of Muskoka Lakes, says, “The reality is, cottagers are coming. No matter what we do. Until the province actually puts a travel ban in place, they will be coming.” 

Ford has confirmed that there is not going to be a provincial prohibition on travelling to the cottage. Complicating matters for these local politicians is the fact that perhaps only 20 per cent of their constituents are full-time residents. As many as 80 per cent are seasonal residents. Any mayor who told 80 per cent of their constituents that they weren’t welcome to come use their cottage would surely find that a career-limiting move come municipal time. 

“I stayed away from my cottage for weeks,” said one tweeter. “Came up finally last week to find my neighbours, who are locals, having a party. Sorry, but I’m not going to avoid my own property just so locals can pretend this pandemic doesn’t affect them.” 

The Victoria Day weekend has always represented Ontario’s first opportunity of the year to kick back, relax, and enjoy the great outdoors. In fact, it’s been dubbed the “May Two-Four Weekend,” since beer and a deck chair seem to have become essential parts of it. 

Whoever thought it would provoke such anger? 

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