Second Homes During a Time of Crisis

“Small Island with Cottage” by Duncan Rawlinson is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Amidst a global health crisis that has government officials imploring people to self-isolate, many Canadians are choosing to relocate to the most isolated places they have access to—their cabins, camps, and cottages. On the surface of it, this reaction is entirely understandable: after all, the seeming remoteness of second homes has always been a large part of their attraction. Geographer Roy Wolfe, the first scholar to study the subject in the Canadian context, reported many years ago that “the illusion of solitude” is one of the principle benefits that people hope to get from their summer homes. [1] More recently, when journalist Roy MacGregor wrote his paean to cottage life, he titled it, appropriately, Escape.

Nevertheless, this exodus to recreational properties defies the orders of government officials. Prior to the Easter long weekend, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, advised urban dwellers that they should “resist the urge” to go to the cottage (although this message was later undermined when news emerged that Justin Trudeau and his family had spent the holiday at the Prime Minister’s official country residence at Harrington Lake in the Gatineaus.) Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, warning that the fight against COVID-19 is far from over, declared that Ontarians shouldn’t be heading to the lake, given that “by no means are we out of the woods.”

Permanent residents of Canada’s resort areas also have objected to cottagers’ desires to flee the city during the crisis. In particular, they are worried about visitors to second homes spreading the coronavirus to rural communities, causing runs on local grocery stores, and overburdening small hospitals that don’t have the same resources as urban health facilities. In Ontario, where infection rates are significantly lower in rural regions than they are in urban areas, the mayors of certain cottage country towns have issued statements urging cottagers to stay away. Some have gone further by denying access to marinas, running water, and other amenities on which seasonal residents depend. The story is similar in the resort towns of British Columbia, where some retailers are refusing to serve customers who don’t have local identification. A year-round resident of B.C.’s Galiano Island likely spoke for many when she apprised cabin owners that “We are not your sanctuary.”

The societal function of second homes is among the many issues that are being put under the spotlight by the COVID-19 outbreak and its attendant economic devastation. Within the context of a global pandemic, the demand that seasonal residents stay away from cottage country surely is warranted; however, it also runs counter to the way that North Americans historically have used and thought about their second homes.

Most of Canada’s second homes are located adjacent to lakes and ski hills, so it is tempting (and not entirely incorrect) to attribute their appeal to the pull of nearby recreational resources. Historically, however, second homes emerged largely in response to disagreeable conditions within cities that temporarily pushed people away from their permanent residences. Indeed, the practice of repairing to a place in the country was but one expression of the widespread belief that rural settings offered refuge from the social, moral, and environmental threats that were associated with urban areas.

Scorching days and sticky summer nights have long left city dwellers pining for relief, but these seasonal weather conditions were compounded by the onset of industrialization during the nineteenth century. Factories not only contributed to urban heat islands, but they also spewed dust and smoke into the air, and befouled urban waterways that might otherwise have provided city folk with refreshment and respite from the heat and humidity. The sounds, smells, crowds, and unrelenting motion of urban life bombarded the senses, creating an urban environment that many people found unappealing. The solution, for those who had the means, was to abscond for the summer to distant, lakeside hotels and country homes, initially by train and steamship, and later, by the interwar period, by automobile. Their children, meanwhile, made off for exclusive summer camps and extended canoe trips.

But it wasn’t only well-to-do vacationers who found solace in the semi-wilderness areas beyond the city. Charities such as the Toronto Star’s Fresh Air Fund created opportunities for underprivileged children and youth to go to summer camp. There, immersion in the great outdoors was believed to instil the discipline, values, and fortitude that would prevent these vulnerable youngsters from heading down the path towards incivility and crime. Similarly, well into the postwar period, city magistrates continued to regard excursions to rural areas as the antidote to juvenile delinquency. As Judge Hayley S. Mott, of the Toronto juvenile court, put it in 1948, “I would covet for every boy a few weeks’ holidays. I would wish that every boy could get out into the country and have his eyes raised up to a higher goal and so he could sense some of the wonders which he misses in the crowded confines of the big cities.”

Muskoka Cottage Sanitorium Views, Gravenhurst, 1910. Public domain. Courtesy of Digital Archive Ontario.

Of greater relevance to the current crisis, rural locations also were widely seen as places of regeneration and health. When medical authorities were deciding where to build Canada’s first treatment centre for patients with tuberculosis, they settled on Gravenhurst, in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country, on account of its good air and invigorating climate. At the Muskoka Cottage Sanitorium, which opened in 1897, consumptives could convalesce and exercise just across the lake from some of the grandest summer homes in all of the province. Second homes also provided a means of avoiding hay fever and other health threats. Up until the introduction of a vaccine in 1955, for example, some parents took their children to the cottage for the summer to protect them against polio, which was thought to spread rapidly in crowded urban environments. This conviction that Canada’s vacation areas offered a buffer from disease wasn’t entirely based in fact: after all, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was believed to have contracted polio while visiting his family’s summer home in New Brunswick. Nevertheless, the idea that second homes are safe havens endured.

Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, Canadians who had the wherewithal continued to visit their vacation properties, although their actions were not without controversy. During the 1930s, popular commentators occasionally wondered whether it was appropriate or tasteful for the fortunate few to be indulging in cottage life while so many others were suffering. Likewise, during the war, when gasoline and rubber were being rationed, and the country was facing a severe housing shortage, recreational travel to second homes struck some critics as an unforgiveable luxury. Despite such opinions, however, the sale of waterfront property remained steady during this era. Summer homes, for people who were in a position to enjoy them, brought peace of mind within the contexts of economic catastrophe, and the scarcities and sacrifices of wartime.

By the postwar period, recreational properties increasingly were seen as providing refuge not so much from illness or austerity as from perceived social and political threats. Amidst a persistent moral panic over juvenile delinquency, for instance, some parents decided that their children’s summers were best spent within the wholesome atmosphere of cottage country, rather than on city streets. Other people had more existential concerns. The Cold War and the threat of a nuclear attack led many in Ontario to view family cottages as the Canadian equivalent to American bomb shelters. Thus, a 1958 plan developed by civil defence officials called for Toronto residents to be evacuated to the Bruce Peninsula in the event of an attack. Though this plan ultimately was shelved, individual Ontarians continued to think of family cottaging as a way to escape the bomb. The province’s summer homes also became destinations due to more specific historical events. During the late 1960s, for example, tourism officials reported a surge of (presumably white) visitors who were trying to get away from the race riots and social turmoil that were then unfolding in American cities.

Over time, then, second homes in Canada have given urbanites in particular a means of outrunning an array of social, moral, and environmental problems. The difficulty, however, is that when people head to their cabins and camps, they don’t simply leave everything behind in the city; they also bring a lot with them—money, of course, but also recreational equipment and other supplies, cultural baggage, and now, potentially, a deadly virus. It’s no surprise, therefore, that so many permanent members of local communities are putting their usual hospitality on pause, and urging their seasonal counterparts to just stay home.

In some of Canada’s tourism regions, discussions over the role of second homes during a time of crisis have devolved into familiar arguments about whether or not cottagers truly are “residents,” with all of the rights and privileges that are encompassed by that term. The debate gets particularly heated due to the fact that seasonal residents typically pay the full complement of municipal taxes, despite only using local services for a portion of the year. To complicate matters further, some seasonal residents are retirees who spend their winters in America’s sun belt and their summers at their family cottage in Canada. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to border closures that threatened to trap Canadians in the United States until after the expiry of their travel insurance, many snowbirds have returned north earlier than usual. Such people literally have nowhere else to go, since their summer home is their only Canadian residence.

As the provinces find success in their efforts to flatten the coronavirus curve, and as the traditional start of the cottaging season approaches, the temptation for city people to vacate to their second homes is only going to increase. (So strong is the temptation, in fact, that Doug Ford hasn’t been able to follow his own advice to stay away from cottage country.) But if provincial governments are starting to equivocate in the lead-up to the May long weekend, the message that many local communities are sending to seasonal residents remains clear: please stay away.

In the absence of intra-provincial travel bans—a measure that only Québec has introduced—there is no doubt that Canadians have a legal right to visit recreational properties. The question is thus a moral or ethical one. At a time when so many of us are experiencing cabin fever after weeks of self-isolation, summer homes promise to grant us a change of scenery, and the freedom that we all miss and crave. Resisting this desire is necessary for the sake of our fellow citizens. But doing so is all the more difficult, given that it means denying the time-honoured belief that second homes are meant to be sanctuaries.

Further Reading

Altmeyer, George. “Three Ideas of Nature in Canada, 1893-1914.” Journal of Canadian Studies Vol. 11 No. 3 (August 1976): 21-36.

Baston, Andrea. Curing Tuberculosis in Muskoka: Canada’s First Sanatoria, (Bracebridge, Ontario: Old Stone Books, 2013).

Bouchier, Nancy B. and Ken Cruikshank. The People and the Bay: A Social and Environmental History of Hamilton Harbour, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016).

Desrosiers-Lauzon, Godefroy. Florida’s Snowbirds: Spectacle, Mobility, and Community since 1945, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).

Harrison, Julia. A Timeless Place: The Ontario Cottage, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).

MacGregor, Roy. Escape: In Search of the Natural Soul of Canada, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002).

Stevens, Peter A. “Cars and Cottages: The Automotive Transformation of Ontario’s Summer Home Tradition.” Ontario History Vol. 100 No. 1 (Spring 2008): 26-56.

Stevens, Peter A. “‘Roughing it in Comfort’: Family Cottaging and Consumer Culture in Postwar Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 94 No. 2 (2013): 234-62.

Stevens, Peter A. “A Little Place in the (Next) Country: Negotiating Nature and Nation in 1970s Ontario,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 47 No. 3 (2013): 42-66.

Wall, Sharon. ­The Nurture of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism, and Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-55, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009).

Wolfe, Roy I. “Summer Cottages in Ontario: Purpose-Built for an Inessential Purpose,” in J.T. Coppock, ed. Second Homes: Curse or Blessing? (New York: Pergamon Press, 1977), 17-33.

[1] Roy I. Wolfe, “Summer Cottages in Ontario: Purpose-Built for an Inessential Purpose,” Second Homes: Curse of Blessing?, J.T. Coppock, ed., (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1977), p. 20.
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Peter A. Stevens

Professor of Liberal Studies at Humber College
Peter A. Stevens is Professor of Liberal Studies at Humber College in Toronto. He has published on various topics in Canadian leisure history, including the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving Day, and the history of family cottaging in postwar Ontario. Since 2021, Peter has served as one of the Book Review Co-Editors for NiCHE. He has a Ph.D. in History from York University.

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