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Muskoka's Race Problem

Every week, I propose a game to my 3 young children. It goes like this: Scan through a cottage magazine that gets dropped off on our Muskoka dock every week and count the number of racialized people in the magazine. If they reach 3, they get a treat. They flip through the close to 200 pages and scan the 100 or so people profiled in stories and advertisements and conclude that they are not going to get their treat.

The magazine is plagued with over-priced cottages targeting readers who aspire to own, or at least gawk in envy, at what is a monstrosity of a property. Filtered throughout are superficial stories, advertisements of local businesses and pictures of ridiculous cottage interiors. The target market? Upper class white people! Remarkably, not one at the magazine’s editorial staff thought it was sensible to at least find something about a racialized minority in Muskoka to write about.

But we’re missing the point if we dedicate this post to racist magazines. As ridiculously phony as the magazine is, there is a bigger question about whether Muskoka, one of Canada’s and the worlds’ coveted treasures, is racist. Perhaps a more constructive question is whether Muskoka represents a very good illustration of how systemic racism plays out in our country. Consider the NHL. I ask my children whether the players in the league are representative of the population in which the league exists. I ask them whether the league has few racialized minorities because they don’t like playing hockey? Similarly, I ask them whether we don’t see many racialized minorities because they simply aren’t interested in the beauty of Muskoka? Their expression is that of a child recognizing that I’m asking them a trick question.

I bought half a cottage as a PhD student in 2002 from what I thought was a fluke and lucky arrangement with a fellow student who was looking to share a cottage so that he had a place to park his boat and car to reach his island cottage. Only in the last several years did I realize that my white skin afforded me the privilege to find myself in a situation like this. Ever since George Floyd, being here in Muskoka has made me increasingly uncomfortable. Things have changed here in 20 years. Over-sized SUVs, sky-high prices of pretty much everything, and the mind boggling and unpalatable excess dominate this place in the summer. But there is a clear and obvious demographic bathing in Muskoka’s riches – white people.

Do any of these privileged people read the above magazine and chuckle at how white it is? Does anyone look up and down these small rural roads realizing that if a racialized minority was seen, they were more than likely a visitor, not a cottage owner? Perhaps most importantly, do any of these wealthy white people recognize that they got to this point of privilege on the backs of racialized minorities?

Muskoka is truly beautiful when you disconnect from the excess. My kids love it up here. I face a dilemma every year wondering if we should leave this place and not be part of the problem. It’s easy to criticize cancel culture when canceling means that you lose give up something you love. For now, after my children look at me with disappointment that they did not get their treat, I give them the opportunity to explain why we played this game. Am I doing enough as a white and privileged parent?

Photo: "Muskoka Chair" by Яick Harris is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


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