She Speaks: Yes, we really call you cidiots, but in an endearing way

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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 (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

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.

16 Comments

  1. Mary Jackson on

    Wow! More than a great read! This really touched me. We have been interested in moving up to the Huntsville/Utterson area. Next time we come for a visit,… I would love to take someone for lunch! Would love to hear their stories, of the place they have walked their walk. I hope your words imprint on other’s, like they have me!

    • Lindy Davidson on

      While reading this article, I felt a growing sense of disbelief and embarrassment for my home town. How can you say tourists are called citiots in an endearing way when in truth it’s with disdain? Keeping in mind it’s short for city idiots, there is no way it’s endearing. Secondly, to ask people who work hard for their money and come to Muskoka to ‘adopt a local’ and buy them lunch or coffee makes Muskoka sound like some Impoverished, third world retreat. To expect the tourists who sink a lot of money into the region in hopes of some relaxation from their daily stress, to wade into the ‘dark underbelly’ and fix the problems is ridiculous. It is NOT their responsibility to fix your problems. As to BnB’s most homes chosen for that purpose would never be used for low income housing and many BnB owners have sunk their savings onto these businesses to have income in their retirement years. Homelessness, drug addiction, etc. are the responsibility of local and provincial councils to manage resources to deal with this and not the responsibility of guests in the region. This story had me picturing locals lined up outside restaurants with buy me lunch signs. Not something that anyone I know in Huntsville would do. It’s quite the Utopian idea but is very derogatory to tourists and very entitled of the author. A sense of pride and accomplishment is never felt when expecting or demanding rather than being grateful for kindnesses.

      • I thought the article was well-written, insightful and full of Truth.
        The locals who live “up north”, who are not privileged to be wealthy, could always use a helping hand.
        I moved up north after a lifetime of working in the city and I see everyday what this young lady is writing about.
        When I moved up here my new friends called me a cidiot and it was in a loving joking, endearing way.
        Today, after I have barely had time to shed that title, I work behind the counter part-time and jokingly refer to the tourists the same way.

        • Sue McIntosh on

          What a great article! So very timely for me. After several years away, I too came back. My roots are in Muskoka and I wanted to come home. That was last year and now, because of all the things mentioned in your piece, I’m moving. I cannot fulfill my dream of buying a house, or even working year round for decent wages (and hours). The stress is affecting my health..trying to keep up on a single income. The summer traffic, the prices and the indifference of the summer visitors is not something Iim willing to tolerate. And as you mentioned, the cost of living is out of my reach. It just doesn’t feel like home anymore.

    • Joe Cearns, former teacher, HPS on

      Well done in many ways; very thought provoking!
      A thought that occurred to me in the course of reading this article was: Don’t confuse me with a tourist when all that you might see of me is the back of my head in a lineup for a coffee.
      I haven’t lived in Huntsville for 54 years but I dont consider myself a tourist when I return to visit. I might fit the description of a tourist: just here for a weekend or a week. No friends here any longer, they have all passed. I might spend time at the Lookout or Pioneer Village and by walking up and down the main street, lamenting at how it has changed.
      I haven’t lived in Huntsville for 54 years but when I return, I’m not a tourist! I might look like one to you; I might even act like one by your definition but I’m not a tourist. I’m someone who has, however briefly, returned to his roots. I am someone who called Huntsville my hometown for 29 years.

  2. Charles Wilson on

    It’s the essence of tourism that they don’t see all the layers of the communities they pay large sums of money to appear to hang out in.

    What they are paying for is the privilege of not looking, of enjoying an unrealistic life-style in an imaginary community.

    Our job to to prop up that illusion and collect the money they pay to spend a few weeks in homes perched precariously on waterfront for which they paid far too much money in the first place.

    That is how the mayor of our fine city and several dozens other real estate agents sell the dream.

    But, since you have brought it up, you are correct there is a problem with all this. The best dream sellers always buy into the dream themselves. Real estate agents, to be good sales people, don’t need to understand the complex contracts they ask people to sign, indeed often they have never read them and they don’t even need to be able to comment on putative values or horizon threats to the nirvana they are hawking, indeed it is much more efficient if they don’t. But don’t expect them to come up with realistic solutions to the everyday problems of life in the communities if you elect them.

    California Dreaming was a song that made the Mamas and the Papas a great deal of money. Muskoka Dreaming is not a song but it’s probably even more profitable. Our mission is to clean up the sewers, look after the poor and the homeless, preferably out of sight, and where necessary, to live on minimum wage in a gig economy to support the summer invasion.

    Just be thankful you are not under 18 in Alberta where the local Tory government has slashed the minimum wage from $18 to $15.00 to assist the children working. There you might really need adoption.

    • Frank Bennett on

      Cidiots? If a Toronto Star article referred to us Muskoka residents as Hicks or Rednecks it would be called out and go viral for being politically uncorrect. Adopt a local? Are you kidding me? Do you think Toronto and the other major Canadian cities don’t have homelessness and opioid crisis? Maybe these Cidiots contribute and make a difference in their own community rather than asking for others to handle their local issues for them. I can’t believe how entitled you come across in this article. Most cottagers pay far more property tax than those of us who reside in the towns and villages of Muskoka, they don’t get much back in the form of municipal services, but those property tax dollars stay in the community so we should all be grateful for that. By the way Charles, the Alberta Minimum Wage is $15 and the new optional youth minimum wage is $13 but only applies to students under age 18 who work 28 hours a week or less while school is in session. It’s intended to make Alberta youth more employable compared to the many adults who have sadly lost their jobs in the resource industry and are now looking for work in minimum wage jobs. Alberta youth were at a competitive disadvantage prior to this as they had to compete directly against adults with more work experience and greater time availability.

  3. Sonya Kwiatkowski on

    Do you know what happens to people like you and me when we travel? We become tourists. So does everyone who is fortunate enough to go beyond their home region. If you travel from Muskoka to visit Toronto or Hong Kong or Grise Fjord or Haiti, you are a tourist.
    So what makes you better than the tourists who come to Muskoka? And why do you think Huntsville is any different than any other small town? Those “dark small-town truths” exist everywhere. Sure there are some people who behave inappropriately but that happens no matter where you go.
    Once when I parked my BMW (not sure what difference that makes but mentioning an Audi in your column leads me to believe the make of a vehicle is somehow important to you) in a legitimate parking spot on Main Street in Huntsville, 2 locals yelled at me to get in my car and go back to the city where I came from. That was after we had been living in Novar for 25 years. I wonder what name could be coined for small town idiots?
    I don’t feel the need nor the responsibility to cure all that ails the cities I travel to. I do feel the need to behave in a polite and considerate manner, but isn’t that what you do no matter where you are or where you come from?
    I don’t know anything about you but I do know there will always be people with more or less money than each of us.
    It is wonderful to travel with an open mind and open heart and be inspired to effect change but your column is riddled with judgement and naivety.
    After more than 30 mostly great years of living in and raising a family in Muskoka we decided to move to another small ” tourist town.” I will continue to complain about the summer traffic but I will not expect tourists buy me lunch.

  4. Marcia Frost on

    -sigh- ya i see the HUGE gap between the rich and poor, i see tht huntsville has grown TOO big TOO fast and really isnt ready. Thts why huntsville is NOT like toronto (and thnk god) but i can tell u tht wlkng dwntwn on main street in july/august is Very similar to wlkng dwn queen st TO blaaaah…crazy, NOwher to walk, NOwher to park (evn tho i live at main/centre).
    This twn has not grown properly and its def hurtng locals! And ya, we kno tons of $ is comng in frm tourists/cottagers, we see the massiv cottages overlookng the lakes tht only hav residents a few weeks of the year. We also DONT SEE ANY OF THT $! We use roads tht are completely fallng apart, we hear the sirens pickng up folks whov overdosed (no resources to help thm), we scrambl to buy food frm freshco (caus the othr stores are so expensiv), we hav nowher to park evn tho we live or wrk dwntwn (so we can serve tourists), we see the gas price jump 8 to 10 cents overnight, we experienc some pretty rude and entitled behaviour frm folks who only come here to rip up the waterways with their power boats, we see our natural areas plowed under, fishing spots decimated for the rich….its all jst gettng to be too much!!!
    We all feel it, the growing tension between the Haves and Havenots, the Rich and the Poor.
    I dont see it ending well and i believ its mainly becaus thos who run this twn are greedy and hav zero interest in investng in the local population! Short sighted greed, make all the $ u can NOW is a very dangerous and ignorant way to run a community…unless the local population start being treatd as valuebl membrs of this community instead of throw-aways resentmnt will continue to grow as thos groups move furthr apart frm one anothr.
    I kno ther are many tourists who are kind and thoughtful (my wrkplace serves thm) but there are many who are entitled A-holes who are makng it really hard.
    We do need to see peopl as individuals but thts also really hard to do whn u kno the beautiful, natural areas we enjoyed are being destroyed to make MORE housing for wealthy people while nothng is being done for thos of us who live here and wrk our asses off (yet cant find nice, safe or reliabl housing)! Im lucky to hav a place at all, but its dwntwn so i hav to hear the screaming and yellng of locals who are strugglng with substance abuse, the partiers all night long coming frm the pubs, the Annoying guys with their jacked up trucks revving their engines or racing at all hours (and i thnk thos guys are actually locals who dont giv a damn about anyone els, JUST as bad as visitors who do stuff like tht!), but it took me 2 yrs to find housing at all so im hangin onto it…..i jst dont like rude or selfish peopl and we got an aweful lot of em in huntsville thes days!
    I cant wait to get out of here one day soon…it feels like a sinkng ship quite honestly, i feel like somthng really bad is coming becaus the twn refuses to see whts happening and insists on seeing huntsville as the quaint, beautiful and welcomng place it was 20 yrs ago…. problm is, its NOT anymore. Peopl are gettng fed up.
    Thank god for the library whch is the only place i can go thts quiet and serene.
    There are definitely Citiots here….there are also STI’s (small town idiots) lol as one othr person commentd….i cant stand eithr one but must suffer thm both. Differenc being STI’s are actng the way they do as a backlash to the Citiots and their ignorance.
    ME-OH-MY we sure have our wrk cut out for us!!
    But the sooner things are done to benefit the wrking class here in town the bettr for Everyone!!
    Come on mr.mayor and council, start wrking for your constituants, not jst the rich ones but ALL of thm!!

    Ps im aware of wht sti normally stands for lol

  5. Karen Wehrstein on

    Torontonians may seem shockingly cold to born and raised Huntsville people, as if they’re specifically rejecting you — but I can tell you as one who was born and raised there, they are not. They’re just as cold to each other, and it simply comes with the sheer number of people concentrated in one spot that you get in a big city. To be friendly with all your neighbours and all the people you pass on the street would be overwhelming. It’s plenty friendly enough within the sub-communities people carve out based on interests, creed or what-have-you. The coldness to strangers is NOT directed at people who originate in Huntsville or any other small town. I remember being very struck by the warmth of people here, until I got used to it. I treasure it, and wished I could have had it where I grew up. At the same time, the cliques of born-and-raised Huntsville folks, I can never be part of, and I’ve been hurt by that.

    • You’ll always be a tourist, Karen, unless your grandparents (and preferably your great-grandparents) were born here. My grandparents moved here from the west in 1905; and that hasn’t been enough in most circles. Just be happy that you have the enlightenment of having lived in both environments: and please continue to share your insightful comments on a variety of comments, the way you have.

  6. As Hugh McKenzie reminds us from time to time, good journalism will always incite comments from both sides. True dat.

  7. Sarah Downes on

    Yes!! Thank you for ALL OF THIS!

    Thanks for mentioning that air bnbs are ruining the rental market!

    Beautifully written and insightful

  8. I am new to Huntsville, after having spent more than a decade dreaming about one day living in the Muskokas and getting out of Dodge, er, Toronto. I feel, now that I am here, that this is truly where I always belonged. I am not rich, but I humble acknowledge and appreciate being fortunate enough to afford a house here, even if I could not afford to live on water, as nice as that would have been nice. I lament the trees that were cut down long ago to clear my development, but cut down they were, and there is nothing I could do about it except start planting some new ones. I hope to make this place home for the rest of my life, as I struggle to be accepted, despite my “outsider” status and the stigma it carries. I am glad to be here. I feel blessed to be here. I care about this town and its people. And I will strive to be a helpful and involved member of the community so that, eventually, where I came from and when I came here no longer matter.

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