National Post Barbara Kay on COVID-19: The country house pandemic problem

National Post - Wednesday April 22nd, 2020

Saint-Sauveur, Que., is a charming Laurentians community that generally caters to tourists and weekenders.

MONTREAL — On April 1, Premier François Legault told Quebecers they should avoid all “non-essential” travel around the province. That meant Montrealers should not be going to their country houses (as we call our “cottages”), nor should people living in other regions travel to Montreal. This was not a suggestion, it was a decree. (One Montrealer who decided he just had to enjoy a hike up Mont Tremblant was told by police that the irrepressible impulse made him liable for a fine of between $1,000 and $6,000.)

We have a habitant-style log chalet in a private, woodsy domain on a tiny lake not far from Saint-Sauveur, Que., in the Laurentian mountains. It’s only a 50-minute drive from Montreal when there’s no traffic, which isn’t that often in normal times, so the near-empty highway nowadays is a heartbreaker to think about. We use it on weekends year-round, as do most people we know with second homes “up north,” which we pronounce as one word (“Heading upnorth this weekend?”).

Even before the official word came down on April 1, I could sense that it might be a good idea if we stayed away. Our maintenance men, who look after our property, the lake and the common amenities we share with our few neighbours, are great guys with whom we have an excellent relationship. We’d like to keep it that way.

Saint-Sauveur, Que., is a charming Laurentians community that generally caters to tourists and weekenders. Tourisme Laurentides

They were super polite about the situation, but it was pretty clear by the third week in March that they were uneasy about people like us coming and going. Weighing our “right” to enjoy our country house — after all, we pay our taxes — against even the very slight frostiness of those guys, who live fairly close to us and whose houses I pass on my walks, I decided it was no contest. They belong there and we are outsiders — and tribalism is the way it goes when people feel threatened.

I had to admit that if I lived full time in Saint-Sauveur, I’d feel the same. The original little town is now a cute theme-park hub inside a wheel of huge supermarkets, outlet malls and something like 60 restaurants, but there are only two good-sized hospitals for the whole region. Imagining myself as an insider, the thought of some city slicker who is spoiled for choice of hospitals in Montreal taking up “my” bed in one of them annoyed the hell out of me.

I think it must be tough to live in a resort community that caters to tourists and weekenders most of the year. In the summers, it’s the lakes and the water park; in the autumn, it’s the leaves, the woods and the hiking; and during the winter, it attracts skiers.

While Saint-Sauveur, Que., is widely known for its busy outlet shopping malls, the charming tree-lined downtown core offers many small, interesting boutiques. Oxana Sawka Photo

Only this time of year, mud season, as well as in the pre-Christmas dreariness of late autumn, are the Laurentian towns a semblance of what they once were — that is, if you keep your eyes away from the mall with the huge parking lot, the giant Provigo, the big Jean Coutu Pharmacy and the Starbucks. When I focus on the lovely old stone church in the heart of the original village, the century-old bakery across the road from it and the rustic former homes that have long been turned into boutiques and cafés, but still retain the humble scale and architectural sweetness of what attracted us outsiders in the first place (and inspired many of us to build our bigger, more luxurious, better insulated versions of same), I remember why I developed such a crush on this place when I was young.

So really, since it is cold in Montreal and mud season in the Laurentians, we’re not missing much except the tranquility, the view of the mountains and the crisp, clean air. And since Montreal is now involuntarily tranquil, with the emissions-free air smelling pretty fresh through the mask, it’s no sacrifice to stay away.

But when the warmer weather and planting season comes, will they be happy to see us back amongst them again? After all, they can’t keep us away forever. Even if they’re not happy, they’ll have to act as though they are, welcoming us with broad smiles and the excellent English all Laurentian francophones acquire by osmosis, because together, we created the monsters of consumerism and convenience some of those towns have become, and monsters have to be fed.

National Post