Is cottaging uniquely Canadian?

A Canadian flag flying in front of a lakeside background By Todamo/Shutterstock

Q: “We have owned our family cottage for a long time, and I am the fourth generation to enjoy it. My father says the phenomenon of cottage ownership is a uniquely Canadian experience, right up there with hockey and Tim Hortons. This sounds impossible to me, but there is no arguing with Dad. What say you?”

A: The first thing I say is that you are correct: there is no arguing with a dad at a cottage. The subject matter is irrelevant, because a cottage dad is in his true element, sometimes one he has been perfecting since childhood. He knows the secret trick to prime the stupid piston pump and can identify many birds simply by listening to their voices. One in 10 can even rotisserie a leg of lamb without disaster.

Cottage ownership is certainly a Canadian thing, but I don’t think we own the exclusive rights to the practice of visiting a secondary residence located in a bucolic setting that is some distance from where we live the majority of our lives. Hytteliv is a Norwegian word for “cabin life,” an outdoorsy woods and water—or snow and mountain—tradition that I’m sure they would say was uniquely Norwegian. The Russians and other former Soviets have out-of-town secondary homes, their dachas, a cultural habit that pre-dates the founding of Canada. “Cottages” exist all over the place, with trees or grass, saltwater or fresh, mountains or sand dunes. I don’t know whether they have the same cultural significance as the Canadian version, but Colombians unwind at a finca in the countryside the same way a New Zealander might hit the surf at a beachside “bach.” In the Czech Republic, you might spend a weekend at your chatě, in Argentina a casa de campo. The minimalist Icelandic sumarbústaður and Finnish mökki seem like they might be what Canadian cottaging used to be like before we got all fancy with outdoor gas fire pits and “Live, Love, Laugh” charcuterie boards.

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The big tipoff that Canada is actually the new cottage kid in town is the “C” word itself, a derivation of “cot,” which is an archaic English word for a small animal shelter or a super-crappy hut. It’s so old that they can’t really put a date on it. Eventually cot became cottage, as in the small, simple house parked out in a field somewhere rural. Other countries, like ours, borrowed the word to describe humble and not-so-humble lakeside places, hence our current situation. 

Along a similar vein, Canadians are very good at hockey and may have even invented the game, but is it uniquely Canadian? Not according to all the other cold, northern countries that play the game at a high level. The question is whether they love hockey Canadian-style, to the point of total worship and mad obsession. I’m guessing not. And Tim Hortons might have once been a coffee and donuts chain founded by an NHL great, but these days, it’s owned by a Brazilian investment firm with almost 5,000 stores worldwide. Is that uniquely Canadian? The hard-to-define quality of “Canadian-ness” does seem to stick to the company, probably because of its advertising, but maybe it’s also something, real or imagined, that some Canadians want to believe to be true. 

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It’s pretty much the same with our cottaging phenomenon. Basically, anywhere you can find a bit of nature within reasonable driving distance of a city, some people will see it as a better place and try very hard to get there. Even within Canada, that can be different things. You say cottage, I say camp. Other people have cabins or chalets. Lake house? Beach house? Take your pick. Cottaging is definitely not unique to Canada, but it does have some sort of singular importance in this country, which I think is what your dad was trying to express in his dad way.

Cottaging is “Canadian” not because we have a monopoly on the activity, but because we collectively believe it to be one of our special things. Of course, this idea is reinforced by the media and clever marketers who know that people with more than one home have lots of disposable income, hence cottage decor, cottage toys, cottage cuisine, and cottage-wear, whatever the heck that is. If you’re not happy about this, blame the Cottage Life All-Media empire, stimulating your lake-hungry dopamine receptors since 1988. With a magazine, consumer shows, and a TV channel, not to mention dalliances with branded clothing, branded games, and branded food products, Cottage Life may be the 500-lb gorilla that has transformed cottaging in this country from a weekend pastime to a super-spendy lifestyle subculture.

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Technically, if you want me to hand down a judgement in this case of Son/Daughter vs. Dad I would have to rule in your favour. Dad is wrong to assert that cottaging is a uniquely Canadian experience. But I doubt any other country embraces the practice with as much zeal and passion and ritualization as we do. Our calendars revolve around cottage visits from May Two-Four through to Thanksgiving, with a few winter bits thrown in if the dance and hockey schedule isn’t too hectic. For lots of us, spending the whole summer at the cottage was a normal routine, concentrated exposure that must surely leave a mark on your brain. The cottage is a hub for fun times, a place guests love to visit, and the family drop-in centre. Weddings, parties, anything.

On a cold, analytical level, cottaging must have huge significance for Canadians when you consider its economic impact, supporting magazines and television programming and a whack of stuff on the web. The maintenance and repair of cottages is an actual industry, never mind all the toys and fun stuff that go with the place. So the true answer is kind of a split decision. If you can swallow your pride just a little bit, take one for the cottage team and tell your dad that he’s right. It will hurt a bit at first, but a little ego stroking might be the key that unlocks the diabolical secrets of that damn piston pump.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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