Buy­ing into Canada’s wilder­ness

National Post (Latest Edition) - - Front Page - BY ZOSIA BIELSKI

More than 9,000 aca­demics are in Van­cou­ver this week to present re­search on ev­ery­thing from gen­der roles to the so­ci­ol­ogy of first names. In a week­long se­ries on the an­nual Congress of the Hu­man­i­ties and So­cial Sci­ences, the Na­tional Post show­cases some of the most in­ter­est­ing re­search.

At the height of the post­war cot­tag­ing boom in the Muskokas, On­tar­i­ans who fan­cied them­selves na­ture lovers doused their land with in­sec­ti­cide, tore up the Cana­dian Shield for man-made beaches and filled their lakes with de­ter­gent, power-boat oil, non-na­tive fish stocks and raw sewage, all while iden­ti­fy­ing as mem­bers of an “anti-modernist, back-to-na- ture” move­ment. To­day, the Cana­dian na­ture lover spends mil­lions on gad­gets at Moun­tain Equip­ment Co-op, which preaches an en­vi­ron­men­tal ethos and so­cial con­science in its pop­u­lar cat­a­logue, but ul­ti­mately only en­cour­ages its mem­bers to shop.

The com­pli­cated hypocrisy of the Cana­dian wildlife lover is the fo­cus of two pa­pers be­ing pre­sented this week at the coun­try’s largest an­nual gath­er­ing of aca­demics.

In one, Peter Stevens, a PhD stu­dent at Toronto’s York Univer­sity, char­ac­ter­izes those who led the un­prece­dented cot­tag­ing boom af­ter the Sec­ond World War as mid­dle­class “na­ture wor­ship­pers” seek­ing an es­cape from city life, and yet who took it upon them­selves to fix na­ture’s short­com­ings and, ul­ti­mately, do­mes­ti­cate it.

“One of the cen­tral at­trac­tions of cot­tag­ing was that it let city peo­ple tem­po­rar­ily es- cape the mod­ern com­plex­i­ties that alien­ated them from the nat­u­ral world,” he writes in his pa­per.

But once there, their re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral world of­ten be­came “com­plex and con­tra­dic­tory,” and in­volved go­ing to great lengths to cre­ate “the kind of na­ture that they de­sired.”

De­spite the fact that many of their Muskoka prop­er­ties sat on the Cana­dian Shield — cot­tages perched atop steep rock faces plung­ing into the lake — many cot­tage own­ers in­sisted on sandy shore­lines, bull­doz­ing the wa­ter­front or dump­ing truck­loads of sand along the wa­ter’s edge to cre­ate the de­sired beaches.

With the help of the De­part­ment of Lands and Forests, many cot­tagers’ as­so­ci­a­tions stocked lakes with pick­erel, trout and bass for recre­ational fish­ing. But they also used the lakes as dump­ing grounds, rou­tinely heav­ing old stoves into the depths, and also used them for bathing, wash­ing clothes and even their cars.

The same lakes were also brim­ming with pes­ti­cides, ae­rial sprayed to com­bat in­sects, fer­til­iz­ers to pro­duce bet­ter lawns, boat en­gine oil and hu­man waste leach­ing from out­houses and sep­tic tanks.

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Stevens writes, it was “in­creas­ingly clear that cot­tag­ing was threat­en­ing the very phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment that had at­tracted cot­tagers in the first place.”

So why did Cana­di­ans do it? Mr. Stevens says their rea­sons “were both in­ad­ver­tent and in­ten­tional,” and hav­ing spo­ken to dozens of them at lo­cal as­so­ci­a­tion meet­ings over the past two sum­mers, he has some sym­pa­thy.

“Cot­tagers reg­u­larly de­scribed their ac­tiv­i­ties as hav­ing im­proved upon na­ture,” Mr. Stevens con­cludes. “Na­ture was ‘wild’ and ‘messy’; it needed ‘help.’ Be­hind this as­sess­ment lay an as­sump­tion that hu­mans had both a right and a re­spon­si­bil­ity to al­ter the nat­u­ral world.”

To­day’s wildlife lovers demon­strate sim­i­larly con­tra­dic­tory at­ti­tudes to­ward na­ture, sug­gests re­search on those who fre­quent Canada’s revered out­door em­po­rium, Moun­tain Equip­ment Co-op.

Marie Van­der Kloet, a PhD Can­di­date at the On­tario In­sti­tute for Stud­ies in Ed­u­ca­tion, went through 20 years of MEC cat­a­logues (1987-2007) to see how mod­ern Cana­dian na­ture-lovers con­struct them­selves.

What she out­lines in her pa­per, “All in a trip to the Coop: The pro­duc­tion, con­sump­tion and sal­va­tion of Cana­dian wilder­ness,” is some­one who feels re­deemed by the com­pany’s eth­i­cal sourc­ing, or­ganic cot­ton cloth­ing and hefty con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, but who ul­ti­mately does lit­tle for the en­vi­ron­ment but shop.

Ul­ti­mately, she ar­gues, to­day’s na­ture lover ex­ploits the wilds for the same es­capist pur­poses as city dwellers of the post-war era.


A study of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cana­di­ans and the out­doors finds we will go to great lengths to cre­ate the na­ture we de­sire.

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