Cottagers are Not the Enemy

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By John Francis

There has been a lot of anger and scandal on social media about cottagers coming to the Bruce Peninsula for the weekend in spite of the pandemic.

They have done this in clear violation of the polite requests from Provincial and local Public Health Officials to stay at their primary residences.

Premier Doug Ford has been firmly in the court of the landowners, defending their right to go to their second properties when they wish. He held firmly to that point of view in a conference call with rural Mayors on Wednesday, reports Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula Mayor Milt McIver. Many of the mayors were trying to make the point that the problem is not cottagers but day visitors. With all attractions shut down, there’s nothing for them to do.

The next day, the Province announced reduced restrictions on a number of businesses and also opened Provincial Parks to the public. The provincial government is formally recognizing that there’s a limit to how long you can lock things down. Life in Ontario is a moving target.

How will the Provincial Parks announcement affect residents of Northern Bruce Peninsula? It’s complicated and not at all clear. Here’s an excerpt from the press release: “The Ontario government is opening provincial parks and conservation reserves for limited day-use access. The first areas will open on Monday May 11, 2020, with the remaining areas opening on Friday May 15, 2020. At this time, recreational activities will be limited to walking, hiking, biking and birdwatching … At this time, camping and other activities are not permitted at any provincial park or conservation reserve. All buildings and facilities including washrooms, water taps, campgrounds, backcountry campsites, roofed accommodations, playgrounds, and beaches continue to be closed.”

So: Black Creek Provincial Park is open, but Sandy Beach is closed because it’s a beach? Smokey Head/White Bluff Provincial Park and Lion’s Head Provincial Park are open, but the only way to get to them — the Bruce Trail — is “closed until further notice”?

Stay tuned.

The use of cottages is just as complicated and just as unclear.

There was, until May 9, no known instance of COVID-19 in MNBP. Many local residents are fiercely protective, wanting the rest of the world to stay away. Cottagers have a different perspective: if they come to the cottage, stay on their property, respect physical distancing and do not interact with anyone else, what possible harm could they be causing?

Mayor McIver understands both sides of this argument. (He understands both sides of most arguments, which has a lot to do with why he keeps getting re-elected. But I digress…)

He is not comfortable with the fact that some cottagers are respectfully staying home, while others are flaunting the Public Health Department’s request by coming to their cottages for the weekends. He is also not comfortable criticising those who come to their cottages. They are respectful; they bring everything they will need, stay on their own properties then go home. What harm does this cause?

Mayor McIver has heard from a number of cottagers who are distressed at the amount of anger and hatred towards them on social media. “The Municipality has a job to do here,” he told me, “to discuss the issue and calm things down between the cottagers and the permanent residents.”

Early on, the lockdown was pretty extreme and it needed to be, he continued. But now we need to get used to a new normal – a little different than a full lockdown. Health care professionals are concerned — and rightly so — about the limited resources we have here. But to ban cottagers from their properties?

“A lot of seasonal people are very generous when we go looking,” Mayor McIver points out. He remembers a point made by Dr Ian Arra, Grey-Bruce’s Chief Medical Officer, when talking about cottagers early in the pandemic.

“Don’t drive the wedge too deep,” is the phrase Milt remembers and that sums the situation perfectly.

Tobermory’s business community came to a similar consensus at their virtual wine & cheese on April 6. “We all agreed,” says Tobermory Chamber of Commerce President Neda Sarbakhsh, “they’re part of ‘here’. If they follow the rules, we don’t see any problem with them.”