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In my late teens and twenties, I lived in Toronto, and my partner at the time had a family cottage in Dorset. Even though I’d left Muskoka intending to never return, I felt an umbilical draw to my hometown of Huntsville as a place that had shaped me, for the better and otherwise.
Few things piqued my ire more than hearing my now-ex call this area ‘cottage country’, or worse, the amorphous ‘up north’. Like the name of the town he vacationed in was incidental, and all that mattered was how the area related to him and his family. I didn’t have the words at the time, but I do now – Muskoka exists on its own terms, not as a playground for those who would commodify it.
There is an underbelly to Muskoka, one I have been exposed to for a long time, as a youth who couldn’t escape other peoples’ judgements, and later as someone who delved behind the façade, attempting to shine the light and expose dark small-town truths.
I am often frustrated with Muskoka, with the desire to maintain that façade, to plant pretty flowers over swampy areas, to invest in tourist attractions while the affordable housing waitlist tops out at seven years for a one-bedroom apartment. I wish we were more united, more generous, more inclusive, more willing to put hand to shovel and money where the mouth is. That said, I have a deep respect for the individuals who make up this community, and it is very much a community.
For example, over two days last week, a woman I take a course with offered me the use of her car because she knows I don’t have one, and a small business owner gave me free product to help with a health issue. I keep them anonymous only because I didn’t have the opportunity to ask them if I could share their kindnesses, and though they are both incredible people, they represent a massive and enduring network that I’ve felt blessed to step back into. When I lived in Toronto, I didn’t know my neighbours, and in fact only saw the family directly across the hall once, when the paramedics brought someone out on a stretcher. I watched through the peephole. Toronto is a city of islands, individual protruding land masses with one person, family, or clique upon each. Muskoka is land of the lakes – interconnected, deep, with a little touch of beaver fever.
I wanted to write an open letter to tourists, because they (you?) are here. We see you. I saw your Audi parked in front of the No Parking sign at the Digging Roots concert. I see when I walk to work and you’re producing a photoshoot in front of the green bridge or on one of the Muskoka chairs. I see you in line at restaurants and I notice you often speak in commands, and honestly you seem tense.
Everyone is quick to talk about the money that tourists pour into Muskoka and I’m not arguing that. Do I think capitalism based on endless resource extraction on a finite planet is a sustainable economic system? Why, no, I do not. Do I acknowledge it as our current reality? Well, mostly. Tourists don’t get to tap into the barter system the way I do, as a local. So, for them, money works.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if every person who cottaged in Muskoka, or travelled here, could adopt a local? There are people who have lived in this town their whole lives and haven’t been to one of the more upscale restaurants. There are homeless folks here who live in tents hidden from sight who’ve never stayed in Algonquin Park. There are people who haven’t taken the Portage Flyer, or one of the cruises, or seen a concert at the Algonquin Theatre. Money into the economy is great, but there is a huge swath of people missing out on any benefit from that particular exchange. I believe tourists are people too – and I believe in overwhelming human kindness. I truly think that if it occurred to them, visitors to our town would relish this opportunity to support Muskoka in an entirely unique way.
What if everyone who visited here bought coffee for a local and got to learn about Muskoka in the winter – the snowbanks taller than you can throw a shovelful, the season of dirt of dog poo (pre-spring), or what about how expensive it is to live in Muskoka, especially in the summer when prices get jacked up on the proven assumption that tourists will pay more for goods and services?
Or what about coffee with the local who lost a friend to an opioid overdose that never got reported in the media? Or the woman who can’t get into the women’s shelter because it’s full and she’s ‘only’ homeless? Or the man who barely leaves his home for six months of the year because he can’t traverse the sidewalks in winter?
But if you decide you’d rather we locals stay behind counters taking orders, consider learning that Huntsville might lose its hospital and put some money toward keeping it open. So many options!
I think I wish tourists understood that they are not seeing all the layers we live in, and I wish they wanted to. I wish they believed they had more to offer than money, or that more than money is needed. The influx of people is hard to deal with, and it’s not just about circling for parking, the fact that all the butter tarts are sold out, and airbnbs take away precious housing options. It’s walking down Main Street, desperate to see a familiar face, but everyone there is walking a pace that doesn’t match my own, they don’t return smiles, they don’t yield space. Sometimes it feels as though locals are seen as non-playable video game characters: only there for the advancement of others without a rich inner life of their own.
Adopt-a-local. I think I’m on to something here. Get to know Huntsville in a completely new way. Dig a little deeper, because while the flowers are pretty, the soil is what gives life.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.