Why I wanted to introduce my Black son to the cottage

tanya hayles and her son sitting on a dock at a cottage Photo by Tanya Hayles

Canada. There are many different mental images that come to mind: maple trees, Tim Hortons signs, and kids playing hockey in the streets. Certain things are considered Canadian rites of passage— including heading up north to a place surrounded by trees and water to cottage. But for many who were born and raised here—those typical happenings aren’t so typical.

I grew up in Aurora, the affluent suburb north of Toronto, Ont. Going to school was an experience because I learned pretty quickly that there were key differences between my classmates and I beyond our skin colour. We didn’t really talk about outdoor activities in our home while I was growing up unless you meant outdoor recess at school. Sleeping over in someone else’s house? Absolutely not—you have a bed at home. What was Victoria Day weekend to me, was “May 2-4” weekend to them. My classmates’ life consisted of packing up the car and heading north to a secondary home-away-from-home for sand, surf, and sunshine. I would shrug and wave and tell them see you on Tuesday or in September.

When I became a parent, it was important for me to ensure my son had access and comforts that I didn’t have. While I didn’t get started as early as I wanted to, I registered him for swimming lessons (while having minimal skills myself), because unlike my own mother, I’d grown to see that here it is considered an important life skill instead of a it-would-be-nice-but-not-a-priority one. I didn’t want my kid to be left out of pool party invites, and for him to be able to handle his own around any body of water. The drowning death of 15-year-old Jeremiah Perry on a school field trip to Algonquin Park in 2017 was also the extra incentive I needed to ensure nothing similar would happen to my son.

My son is slowly making his way through the various swimming class levels, gaining key water skills in the pool. He is not a fan. And while I’m generally the mom that doesn’t want to force a child into doing an activity they don’t like, I’m sticking to my guns on this one because I know he’ll thank me later when he’s doing cannonballs off the dock into a lake.

I have two high school friends who are my gateway to the tightly gatekept community of cottagers. Often when we’re invited, my son and I are the only Black or people of colour. I am very cognizant that these are places I wouldn’t be able to go to without having them as my co-signers. Canada prides itself on being open to all, but Black people or people of colour are not always welcome in these spaces, whether implicitly or explicitly.

I say yes to these invites, despite being hyper-aware of being the chocolate chip in the cookie, for two key reasons. The first is that I want my son to have a wide variety of experiences that colour his childhood, including the cottage. I loved watching him fish for the first time and make the decision himself on whether to throw the fish back into the water or eat it for dinner (he chose the latter). I love watching him be carefree in the warm lake waters, trepidatious at first—but eventually letting himself go with the waves, splashing around to his heart’s content. I enjoy the quiet nature walks, picking up oddly shaped rocks, pointing out mushrooms or pretty flowers along the way. I know as electronics and video games become more important to him, those kinds of things will be harder to get him to do. The second reason is selfish. As a busy mompreneur that has two businesses, sits on two boards, and runs a non-profit, I love how deeply I breathe once I’m in nature. Whether it’s a yurt, a trailer, or a cottage—I sleep better, I cook better, I unplug, I reconnect with the earth in a way that the hustle and bustle from city life doesn’t allow or encourage. Life is just better at the cottage.

tanya hayles son standing on a dock by a lake in a canada shirt
Photo by Tanya Hayles

I am also not alone. As we move forward in a new era of racial equity, we are creating new communities to encourage people to engage in one of the quintessential Canadian activities. From groups teaching Black girls how to swim, or Black men organizing group bike rides, slowly but surely, we are colouring in the usually very white outdoor space.

I am a proud Canadian. I am proud to get to know our country in a way that my parents who immigrated here from a little island in the Caribbean couldn’t have fathomed. I am also proud to be part of the generation that is re-writing what it means to be Canadian and what that looks like. I am hopeful that by the time my son is my age, cottage life truly is representative of all who want to experience all that this piece of Canadiana culture has to offer.

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