Summer in Cottage Country

As the summer heat and humidity kick in, many Canadians hit the road and head for cottage country, something that has become a national tradition. But as Tonya K. Davidson discusses in her textbook Seasonal Sociology, this tradition seems to rely on an assumption that everyone has access to a cottage that they enjoy in the summer.

The text has a full chapter dedicated to “Summer in Cottage Country” and in this post, we’re sharing an excerpt. Davidson details how cottage ownership and enjoyment in Ontario is the result of histories of dispossession of land from Indigenous peoples as a form of settler colonialism and explores how assumptions about cottage ownership can be read as expressions of classism and conspicuous consumption.

Excerpt from Chapter 17 | Summer in Cottage Country: Expectations and Experiences of Canadian Nature

The Ontario Cottage and Settler Colonialism

Going to the cottage joins other idealized Canadian summer pastimes, like camping and canoeing, that promote Canada as a land of wilderness and Canadians as attuned to and reverent of their natural environment. Jocelyn Thorpe (2011) describes the concept of social nature as: “the mechanisms through which nature appears separate from culture
in order to make it clear that the nature-culture binary is a cultural product that has benefited some groups at the expense of others”. In other words, our understanding of nature is anything but natural; nature is constructed and imagined for us through particular sets of social ideas. The social nature of Ontario cottage country was and is only possible through the dispossession of the land from Indigenous people. Cottage country in Ontario is often on unceded Indigenous land, meaning it is on land that European settlers inhabited without ever signing treaties with the original Indigenous inhabitants. In some cases, cottages are on land that Indigenous communities have leased long-term. Dispossession of land from Indigenous peoples was and continues to be the basis of settler colonialism in Canada. Thus, the centrality of owning cottages to the Ontario summer imagery supports the logic of settler colonialism and a specifically white English-Canadian orientation toward nature.

In cottage country, settler colonialism takes two forms: going to the cottage is a practice where Indigenous people and Indigenous land rights are actively forgotten, simultaneously Indigeneity is often imagined in these spaces in ways that serves the interests of settler colonialism. Specifically, in cottage country, the minimal representations of Indigenous people that exist are often anachronistic and caricatured like the racist “cigar store Indian” figures of the past.

Representing Cottage County as Terra Nullius

In the 1920s, the Group of Seven, a group of landscape artists based in Ontario, was instrumental in shaping how Canadians imagined the Canadian wilderness. Their paintings were characterized by wild, unpeopled landscapes, the Canadian Shield, and northern woods, and they were clear depictions of terra nullius: an empty land ripe for white settlement (see Unger, chapter nine; Blomley 2004; Razack 2002). Nicholas Blomley (2004) suggests that maintaining the logic of terra nullius requires constant vigilance and spatial practices such as planning, naming, and mapping. In early settler writing on cottage country, Indigenous people were either imagined as absent – one travel writer wrote of Temagami that it was “untrammeled by the foot of man, unsullied by his hand” (in Thorpe 2011, 204) – or as primitive and stuck in the past. The celebration of the Ontario cottage lines up with the logic celebrated in the Group of Seven’s paintings; it glorifies the landscape as if it was vacant and available for settler colonial use and enjoyment. The ideas surrounding the moral, aesthetic, and socializing value of an Ontario cottage allow for the ongoing dispossession of land from Indigenous people in a way that is presented as naturalized, peaceful, and as a site for primary socialization – good for children.

Today, going to the cottage continues to be a summer experience predominantly enjoyed by white people. From her ethnographic research in the Haliburton region of Ontario, Julia Harrison (2013) explains that the whiteness of the Haliburton cottagers influenced their understandings of and attachments to their cottage. Haliburton cottagers exhibited a certain slippage into the presumption of their right to own – and retain – a cottage for future generations of their Canadian family. In Harrison’s study, Haliburton cottagers expressed both presumptions that they had the right to own the cottage properties in the present and would continue to access the resources needed to own the properties for future generations.

Over time, owning family, for many, cottages became imagined as a birthright, as white settlers came to view their cottage properties as a “spiritual homeland” (Grant 2008, M.1). The whiteness of cottage country is maintained when Indigeneity is invoked only to bolster the natural background but expelled and understood as an encroachment on proper land usage when Indigenous people work toward sovereignty.

Daniel Francis (1992) defines the “imaginary Indian” as an anachronistic Indigenous figure created through a European imagination and circulated through stories, summer camps, books for children, product branding, and sports logos. This figure has dominated how mainstream white society views Indigenous people. Philip Deloria (1998) has written about how there is a long history of white people “playing Indian” in the United States. Since the American Revolution, through the 1950s and the countercultural 1960s and 1970s, white Americans have fetishized Indigenous difference as a way to define their own cultural and individual identities. He write that “[a]although these performances have changed over time, the practice of playing Indian has clustered around two paradigmatic moments – the Revolution, which rested on the creation of a national identity, and modernity, which has used Indian play to encounter the authentic amidst the anxiety of urban industrial and postindustrial life”. While discussing a different national context, “playing Indian” has taken on a similar resonance in Canada and in cottage country. In cottage country, Indigeneity is welcomed at the level of the imaginary. For example, the word “Kawartha,” a Mississauga word for “bright waters and happy lands” was “first coined in 1885 in response to a request by tourism promoters to the Mississauga people of Curve Lake for a name to describe the region…. It is not clear whether the native people already used this word to identify this area, or whether it simply originated in response to the request” (Marsh and Griffiths 2006, 220).

“Wild Rice is Anishinaabe Law”

Anishinaabe manoomin inaakonigewin gosha,” from the Ogimaa Mikana (Reclaiming/Renaming)
Project by Susan Blight and Hayden King. Photo credit: The Ogimaa Mikana Project (https://ogimaamikana.tumblr.

While cottage country welcomes Indigenous names and some material culture, Indigenous peoples and land claims are often met with hostility. In the summer of 2016, people driving up to Ontario’s Pigeon Lake, northeast of Toronto, in the Kawarthas, would have passed a billboard that read: “Anishinaabe manoomin inaakonigewin gosha” meaning, “wild rice is Anishinaabe law,” illustrated with stalks of the manomin plant. The billboard was part of the larger Ogimaa Mikana (Reclaiming/Renaming) Project curated by Susan Blight and Hayden King. Manomin (the Ojibwa word for a grain commonly known as wild rice) has been a staple of the local Ojibwa diet since time immemorial. In the Kawarthas, this billboard deliberately spoke to what was being called the “rice wars,” which had been ongoing since 2007 (Jackson 2016). For the past decade, some cottage owners had become upset that their cottage landscapes were being altered by the ongoing and expanding cultivation of manomin. The upset cottagers started a group called “Save Pigeon Lake” and in 2015, cottagers complained because one manomin harvester, James Whetung, was seeding the lake with a motor boat instead of a traditional canoe. Whetung had a licence and treaty rights that gave him access to the lake. As a response to the cottagers’ concerns, in a Parks Canada settlement, cottagers were allowed to clear a 100-by-100-square-foot area free of rice by their shores (Sachgau 2015).

Like in other cottage countries, Indigeneity is permissible (and even exploited) at the level of imagery, in the form of tourism marketing and vague notions of the region’s past. However, in the face of present Indigenous claims, many respond with a strong sense of entitlement to beaches for their own leisure. When harvesting, Whetung describes that “[t]hey just come down to yell racial slurs and threaten us … [saying that] if we don’t get out of there, they’re going to call the cops every five minutes until [they] drag us out of there” (quoted in Jackson 2016, n.p.). The manomin harvest represents Indigenous sovereignty, food sovereignty, and community building. However, in the historic production of this region’s social nature as cottage country for white settlers, the wild rice stocks that the Anishinaabeg relied on became increasingly threatened, first through the building of the settler-colonial infrastructure for the Trent-Severn Waterway in 1837, 1856, and 1880, and then by the release of carp into the lakes in the 1870s (Jackson 2016).

For Whetung, Blight, and King, manomin harvesting is central to local Indigenous culture and food security, both in the past and in the present. For some of the present cottagers, however, the social nature of cottage country should be one managed for the leisure practices of the white settler cottagers: a space where both Indigenous peoples and their present engagements with the land are expelled. This story demonstrates how the social nature of cottage country has been created and maintained to affirm the dominance of white cottagers.

The Classism of Cottages

Cottage ownership and enjoyment is also clearly stratified within non-Indigenous society along the lines of social class and gender. Not in cottage country but in the heart of downtown Toronto, I visit condominiums for sale. One tiny condo that boasts a Juliette balcony and a barebones rooftop terrace is staged, awaiting my visit. The staging includes copies of Cottage Life magazine fanned out on the living room coffee table. The so-called cottage life is incongruent with the tenor of the apartment building, suggesting to me that cottages are clearly aspirational objects. In other words, the real estate customers interested in purchasing this tiny condominium likely could not afford an expensive second home; however, the cottage life is presented to complement a dreamy lifestyle imagined to be bought alongside this condo. Bruce Ravelli and Michelle Webber (2010) define classism as “an ideology that suggests that people’s relative worth is at least partly determined by their social and economic status”. Privileging summer cottage-going over other more accessible forms of summer leisure can be understood as a reflection of classism, whereby the expensive cottage life is seen as the ideal form of leisure and those who can afford it are seen to be enjoying Ontario summers properly. In this staged condo, the imagined cottage life is clearly celebrated as an idealized form of leisure.

Celebrity Cottages

Like other practices of conspicuous leisure, spending summers at the cottage is a practice endorsed by celebrities. Celebrities including Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg all have cottages in Ontario’s Muskoka region. The August 2015 issue of Vogue magazine featured an invitation to Cindy Crawford’s “private island retreat,” a deluxe cottage in Muskoka to which Crawford’s family arrives by sea plane. Crawford herself describes the area: “Every house here is a Ralph Lauren ad already” (Haskell 2015, n.p.). The décor of her retreat is described as

a warmly appointed chalet with brass lanterns, miniature canoes, and dream catchers made by the local Ojibwa tribe. The seat of an old leather club chair is upholstered in a Pendleton blanket, and a credenza from a bar Rande once owned in Aspen stands beside a lounger from a former house of Cindy’s in DeKalb, Illinois, the town where she grew up.

Haskell, Rob. 2015. “An Exclusive Look at Cindy Crawford’s Private Island Retreat.” Vogue, August 25.

Not just an emblem of conspicuous consumption, Crawford’s cottage also problematically reduces Indigeneity to ambiance. The dream catchers, within the context of this celebrity cottage, reinforce the “imaginary Indian” trope described by Daniel Francis (1992) and could be read to be operating in the tradition of what Deloria (1998) identifies as “object hobbyists” – people who, emerging in the mid-twentieth century, enjoyed collecting Indigenous artifacts and saw Indigenous people as “objects of desire, but only as they existed outside of American society and modernity itself”. When understood sociologically, Crawford’s private island retreat, presented as aspirational, reinforces dominant classed and racialized values.

Private Lakes versus Public Pools

Aspirational summer leisure like Ralph Lauren–styled cottage retreats are celebrated culturally and invoked in all of the expressions of cottage-focused assumptions that began this chapter. However, these cottage-going assumptions mean that the summer leisure activities of the un-cottaged masses, people coming from all social classes, in hot cities and suburbs often go ignored and underfunded. While cottages are private property and enjoyed with chosen company, public pools are both deeply intimate and public. Suzie O’Brien and Imre Szeman (2014) suggest that “[t]he state of public swimming pools has historically been, and continues to be, a microcosm of the wider North American society”. In 2008, the Toronto District School Board announced that they would be closing a number of their pools. Reflecting on her childhood summers learning to swim in Lake Superior and speaking to the recent cuts to public swimming pools, author Margaret Atwood (2008) responded to the pool closures in a newspaper article:

But why can’t they learn in a lake, as I did? Many people used to swim in Lake Ontario, before it got so polluted that if you went in with two eyes you’d come out with three. We’re told that water quality’s improving, but there’s a way to go yet; and even if the lake were totally purified, it’s too cold for swimming in all but three months of the year. But isn’t that enough time to learn? Kids do it at summer camp. Yes, those whose parents can afford it – who are a small fraction of the Toronto total. Which leaves us with: Rich kids swim, poor kids sink. (n.p.)

Atwood here highlights the classism in assuming that all Canadian children have ready access to lakes to learn to swim. In many cases, spending time at a lake is a luxury, while public pools are designed for and used by broader society. Collectively presuming everyone is at a cottage enables disinvestment in summer leisure activities in the places where most Canadians live – hot, sticky cities. Underfunding public summer leisure activities exacerbates the classed ways in which children’s summers are actually, as Patrizia Albanese explains in chapter twenty, “often experienced as a financial and logistical strain on parents, and a source of great stress” (Seasonal Sociology, p. 346).


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