Unpacking the Symbolism of Canadian Cottage Culture - AJ

Unpacking the Symbolism of Canadian Cottage Culture

cottage in forest art

The cottage on the lake, the cabin in the woods – these are the trademarks of an iconic Canadian summer. Cottages are our own personal slice of the wilderness that defines Canada, and those lucky enough to own a cottage also feel a connection to that place that holds so many family memories. It is easy to see that we love cottages for the natural beauty that surrounds them, the recreation opportunities they provide, and that home-away-from home feeling.

The cottage on the lake, the cabin in the woods – these are the trademarks of an iconic Canadian summer. Cottages are our own personal slice of the wilderness that defines Canada, and those lucky enough to own a cottage also feel a connection to that place that holds so many family memories. It is easy to see that we love cottages for the natural beauty that surrounds them, the recreation opportunities they provide, and that home-away-from home feeling. However, when you look deeper into the history and traditions cottage culture is built on, the story is a little more complicated. I want to explore that story, as well as why we need to, and can, do better. 

Let’s start with Canadian wilderness identity in general. And by that, I mean when the world imagines Canada, when Canadians imagine Canada, they see the Rocky Mountains, the boundless prairies, igloos and polar bears, Mounties, beavers, and maple syrup. What’s pictured is the vast, open, and somewhat lonely wilderness portrayed by the Group of Seven. A place that is still remote and open to adventure; a wild west just beyond backyards and railways. 

Despite these images being far from what the average Canadian experiences daily, it is still how we define ourselves, and it is often part of what we are trying to capture in our cottage experiences. What is less obvious is how these ideals and images were born out a history of erasure, sexism, racism, and classism, as well as how this history shapes our current relationship with nature. It turns out there’s a lot more than meets the eye in those iconic postcard scenes. 

To keep this brief, historically, the narrative of Canada was written by white male settlers. Much of the art that is considered ‘Canadiana,’ like the Group of Seven, depicts beautiful but eerily empty, lonely landscapes. These sorts of images further promoted the idea that the landscape was devoid of people and in need of conquering. This is one of the many, many ways Indigenous people have been erased and dehumanized through our collective documented history. Early tales of this country describe places so wild only the most masculine of men could thrive – only men of superior northern (white) races. These tales are exclusionary of women, children, and other races. As our nation grew and we formed cities, our relationships with these ideas of wilderness shifted, but only slightly.

We began to see nature as separate from human society, but it continued to be a place to be conquered, and a place for the privileged to recreate. This is the colonial or postcolonial space we exist in. We view nature as outside of society, we try to conquer and shape the landscape as we see fit, and nature is still in many ways much more accessible to the privileged. To tie this back to cottage culture, let’s first consider how for most people the cottage is at least an hour’s drive from home, an escape from the city. And have you ever looked around a lake and wondered why so many properties have been turned into a manicured subdivision lot? This speaks to an ingrained desire to conquer and change wilderness. Lastly, the ability to own a cottage continues to be a privilege many cannot afford. 

Perhaps this history is the root of the disconnect between the beautiful, natural, and inviting spaces we want our cottages to be, and the elitist, hyper-manicured realities we often find ourselves in. Consider the common values cottagers collectively share: good water quality, natural beauty, and a healthy ecosystem. Yet their actions – keeping manicured lawns, removing plants, developing the shoreline, and not properly maintaining septic systems – do not support these values. This may speak to the last piece of the colonial mindset puzzle we have been building here, and that is the idea that our wilderness is so vast it cannot entirely be conquered, thus rendering our individual actions inconsequential. In this age of globalization and planet-wide environmental crisis, I hope it is becoming clear how wrong this mindset is. 

I don’t mean to suggest that these ideas are in the front of peoples’ minds or that they are consciously following in these traditions, but rather that colonial narratives have shaped our culture and social norms. They run in the background of our minds and our society, and it is up to us to acknowledge them, replace them, and move forward. This requires the deconstruction of the frontier mentalities of boundless wilderness and the drive to conquer, alter, and control. It involves confronting the notion of property as a right for the privileged and replacing it with the idea that property is a privilege with the burden of responsibility; a responsibility to maintain its ecological integrity, to preserve it, and to allow it to be part of the larger system owned by us all. 

Change involves accountability at an individual and community-scale. It involves seeing the lake as an ecosystem before a place to wakeboard and seeing your cottage as taking over a piece of nature, rather than seeing a seedling as taking over your lawn. A new mindset puts ecosystem priorities over recreation priorities and seeks to find ways to recreate which do the least harm. 

This new mindset needs to define Canadians as both part of the wilderness and keepers of the wilderness, and the wilderness as necessary, changing, and worthy of protection. Canadians being a part of Canada, not Canada being a part of Canadians. It needs to be inclusionary of all peoples, locations, and ecosystems. It is not a mindset that inhibits the enjoyment of nature, but one that sees the whole picture and does not seek to compartmentalize. 

We have been defining ourselves by a place, an idea of wilderness devoid of people and society. This has never been accurate, no matter how far we went to prove it through the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples. It is time to define ourselves within – to find a connection that goes beyond propaganda, hype, and postcards. The narrative of the past is worn out, the narrative of the future is clear, and it’s up to us to get there, one mindset and one cottage at a time. 

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