Farm country, Canadian Shield…anything but “cottage country”

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By Nancy Payne

Nancy Payne grew up on a farm near Reaboro and now lives northeast of Lindsay. A magazine editor, a former CBC Radio producer and a freelance writer and editor, she never ceases to be amazed at the fascinating people and places of Kawartha Lakes.

Farm country, Canadian Shield…anything but “cottage country”

It started earlier than usual this year.

With Toronto residents looking to isolate themselves at their vacation homes, the first news stories appeared in March rather than, as is typical, in the lead-up to the May long weekend.

“Ontario cottage country deals with influx of residents amid COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Cottage country mayors urging seasonal residents to ‘stay away.’”

“Cottage country grapples with increase in visitors during COVID-19 crisis.”

Nancy Payne, associate editor.

Leaving the substance of those articles aside, it’s disheartening to see our beloved Kawartha Lakes simply swept in with Muskoka, Peterborough County, Haliburton County and Georgian Bay as “cottage country.”

Again and again, through the casual use of those two words, the place tens of thousands of us call home year-round is reduced to something that’s apparently best defined as Toronto’s vacationland.

At best, “cottage country” is an irritant; at worst, it’s kind of humiliating.

Let me be clear: I’m not in any way attacking cottagers or Torontonians. I’m just asking them, and the news writers, too, to think about things from the point of view of those of us who live here.

Yes, this place where we run stores, study, relax, volunteer, manufacture things, canoe, dine, worship, hike, shop and cycle is also the place where many people have their cottages.

We know it’s beautiful and peaceful and friendly — that’s why we live here.

But when outsiders call it “cottage country,” I feel like our presence is erased, and we appear only as “the locals.” The reality of lives lived from October to May just kind of … disappears.

I know there’s nothing intentional about this; Torontonians don’t mean to dismiss us. But given how ubiquitous the term is, it seems it’s never occurred to them that there might be a better, more respectful way to describe this huge area of Ontario.

I suspect it’s a uniquely Torontocentric attitude. There are concentrations of vacation properties all over the country, but I’ve never heard any of them referred to as cottage country.

When I lived in Ottawa, people who had cottages in west Quebec or the Rideau Lakes region never referred to those places in such a self-centred way.

People who summer in Northern Ontario call it camp, not camp country. Pals in B.C. go to their cabin, not to cabin country.

I can only speak for myself, of course. Words are my business, so I probably think about them far more than most. I’ve mentioned my “cottage country” observation to others in our area; as often as not, their reaction is a bemused shrug.

Perhaps we’ve internalized, without noticing, the language others use about us, and ended up complicit in our own erasure.

Although Kawartha Lakes now highlights words like “Discover” and “Explore” in its slogans, when I was a kid, I remember seeing brochures describing Victoria County as “Your Four-Season Playground.”

That didn’t make sense to me. I knew there were places to play here, but I also knew that our family did a lot of work on our farm, and that playgrounds were in schools, not stretching over the entire area.

But, you may be thinking, “cottage country” is such a quick and easy description. How else are we supposed to talk about the region everyone in Toronto wants to escape to?

Well, first of all, it’s an unhelpfully imprecise term.

When people say “cottage country,” are they referring to the vibrant shops and restaurants of downtown Lindsay or a gravel road into Four Mile Lake or the tidy year-round homes on Cameron Lake?

Or, for that matter, are they actually talking about Gravenhurst or Wasaga Beach or Apsley?

And second, it’s really not that hard to come up with other, more accurate descriptions. What about calling it “farm country”?

That doesn’t cover everything we do here, of course, but it’s a more accurate description of most of Kawartha Lakes; “Canadian Shield country” covers much of the rest.

Best of all would be if people took just a few moments to learn some geography. It’s pretty easy to describe a cottage as being “on the Burnt River” or a resort being “near Rosedale.”

It doesn’t change the experience when you describe it as happening north of Omemee or east of Kirkfield.

But what it does do is grant the area a little more dignity — a sense of being a place that matters in and of itself, rather than one that only matters in relation to others’ relaxation.

So, yes, Toronto folks: We agree that Kawartha Dairy maple walnut is the best ice cream in existence.

We love running into you at Highland Cinemas. We’re more than happy to share our beaches and craft breweries and antique stores and chip trucks with you. In return, maybe just one little favour?

Could you please stop calling our home … that?

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