Editorial; 'Locals don't own Muskoka' - Unpacking the Covid-19 divide between locals vs cottagers
I have been visiting Muskoka since my teen years. I have brought my kids up here since they were babies. We have spent many birthdays, holidays, long weekends as tourists in this magical region of forests, rocks and lakes. I have loved this region from the moment a friend invited me to his family's Parry Sound cottage circa 1997 and its beautiful islands. I fell in love madly when about a year later I rented my first cottage in Muskoka with friends and years of good times on pristine lakes followed in cottage country. I loved it all whole heartedly then like I love it now and actually find myself more fiercely protective of Muskoka as a full time resident. We re-located to Muskoka five years ago. I can't imagine from this point on not owning land within the confines of Muskoka's serenity. My point of this backgrounder is not for you to get to know me better but that you understand the love and passion most residents regardless if born and bred here, or transplanted here have for this place.
The cottagers which make up the seasonal resident demographic in Muskoka are as invested in the preservation of this little piece of lakelands haven as those who have had the true privilege of living here for generations. I can say with little hesitation, having witnessed deputations at many council meetings, that more or less we all are striving for the same goal in the preservation of Muskoka.
That said as I read social media feeds as well as Muskoka Post's comment section discussing the Covid-19 measures in Muskoka, the divide between full time locals and seasonal residents is hard to miss or ignore. This 'divide' stems from a long history of political origins, the folklore goes that local politicians like to cater to the wealthier seasonal residents as oppose to all year residents, this viewpoint is often minimized in Muskoka's municipal bureaucratic dialogue. But the ugly truth remains and it seems the divide is real and in fact fostered by some in municipal office. This has been especially visible during the Covid-19 crisis.
A couple of weeks ago Muskoka Post published an article in which Muskoka Lakes Mayor Phil Harding exposed and further exasperated the issue. On March 28 Harding composed a tweet encouraging seasonal residents to directly violate a public health request made by the Premier, and Ontario public health officials just a day earlier requesting the public to remain at primary residences.
Doug Ford himself acknowledged that while he has a cottage in Muskoka now is not the time to visit. It has been made clear that like the request for a total provincial fire ban in order to minimize pressure on resources during this pandemic, the request for people to remain at their primary residence is made so that health care providers and hospitals in small communities such as Bracebridge and Huntsville are not pressed beyond capacity. Ontario's health care system even prior to the emergency of Covid-19 was already functioning at near capacity with specialist wait lists in the hundreds. Mayor Harding however, seems to have wanted to please his political support base which he admits consists of 85% cottagers who for some reason thought that Ford wasn't referring to them when asking seasonal residents not to visit their secondary seasonal residence. It was a perfect storm of circumstance when snowbirds began coming back into the province, many of who have cottages in Muskoka, people en masse began preparing and buying an inexplainable amount of toilet paper and two weeks worth of supplies as recommended by public health all while seasonal residents from the GTA began their spring migration to cottage country. The result of this storm was that Muskoka's store shelves were empty, cashiers claimed many customers were not local and had verbally acknowledged having come back from vacations, the non-local licence plate war erupted, and the out convincing of opinions between cottagers and locals of who has full time rights to Muskoka began on the social media theatre stage.
So when a Muskoka constituent exchanged several messages with the Muskoka Lakes mayor; who was largely supported during his 2018 election by special interest groups consisting of cottagers and was third party promoted by the Muskoka Lakes Association as well as the Friends of Muskoka, whose members are seasonal residents, the mayors defensive conversation was directed immediately toward money as if though that was some sort of game point toward Muskoka residentship. So let's acknowledge that Yes some seasonal property owners pay a lot of taxes because they choose to reside on the water. Muskoka waterfront does not come cheap nor should it. Yes you pay more taxes, which translates to yes you can afford to pay those taxes. This is a choice you made to have this secondary residence. This choice, however, does not entitle seasonal residents to breach provincial emergency orders during a pandemic. Two weeks ago it seems Mayor Harding was above those emergency guidelines when he told a district of Muskoka constituent, who thought that it was troubling that he would encourage people to come north, that "locals don't own Muskoka or Muskoka Lakes." Harding went as far as to point out as to "who actually pays for the hospitals and donates the most money. Kinda a slap in the face don't you think." Well first, I didn't think that donating to the hospital was considered a competition of sorts, and Yes Mayor Harding, you're correct, your statement is a major slap in the face to the locals whom you just belittled with the privilege of your voters base wealth. Should these poor local souls bow down to acknowledge the gifts bestowed upon them? Judging from the emails I received from the mayor's supporters I should have not only published the fact that just one day after Harding's comments it became public knowledge that a group of seasonal residents donated $135k to local hospitals and how dare I have not published that info yet. It was also recommended that I should publicly apologized to the mayor for publishing his own words while asking Ontario residents to violate public health recommendations. I stand by my byline and refuse to apologize for pointing out the obvious, and once again pointing out the obvious with the divisive language used by Harding when addressing a constituent he didn't know. This wasn't a friend, this was a stranger with which he wasn't afraid to share his controversial view with.
I can't even begin to unpack the absurdity of this statement; 'locals don't own Muskoka."
It's kinda like saying "First Nations don't own Canada" well you see in a round about way they kind do, so some respect is due given whose land you're actually on as you enjoy your Lake Rosseau view brought to you by mother nature herself not the cottagers who reside around it. No one owns Muskoka. No one should own Muskoka. Trying to prove that one can own Muskoka is equally as absurd as the statement itself. The fact that this statement was made by a local politician is troubling and specifically in the context of a pandemic.
Fast forward to April, and with positive Covid-19 cases in Muskoka Lakes the first death in Muskoka is tragically a Muskoka Lakes seasonal resident in his 80's who acquired the virus through travel in the US. Two weeks before this sad news Mayor Harding boasted that Muskoka has almost triple the amount of ventilators vs the provincial average. Cottagers argued on social media that if they felt sick and had symptoms they would go back home would seek help at their local hospitals. Both of those statements did not ring true with Muskoka's first Covid-19 death; the ventilator did not help the deceased and he did not return to his primary residential hospital while sick, as during an emergency there isn't time to drive over 100km with a patient in respiratory destress. Proving the theory that people need to stay at their primary residence not secondary to avoid health care system overload in smaller communities which overall have limited resources. This ask is not a discriminatory one against seasonal residents. Nor does this ask elevate the local resident.
Over the last weekend Mayor Phil Harding seems to have reversed gears and was quoted in the National Post saying "I’m encouraging people not to come north (from Toronto to Muskoka). I’m certainly hoping it’s more convincing. I’m hoping that I can appeal to people with that social conscience.” Is it the social conscience which developed following the comments asking for his resignation, or the death of a Muskoka Lakes seasonal resident, or the social conscience which the locals were asking for before, during and after, those divisively unnecessary comments were made. In 2022 choose your representatives wisely Muskoka.
-Agatha Farmer, Muskoka Post