The view from cottage country
May 24, 2004
GRAND BEND, Ont. - When you walk into The Growling Gator bar and grill, it's
hard to forget what nation you're living in.
At least four Canadian flags hang from the wooden planks that support the
ceiling of corrugated plastic. Rows of pennants advertising Molson's flagship
brand, Canadian, are strung over the plastic tables in the dining area where
people are eating lunch. Let It Ride by Bachman Turner Overdrive is playing
on the sound system, and there's a green canoe - yes, it's actually a canoe -
set into the wall over the bar.
This is a Canadian bar. In a Canadian small town.
No, it doesn't get much more Canuck than The Growling Gator, which makes what
happened at 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday all the more puzzling. What happened? Not
Of course, in Ottawa, something was happening - something big. Prime Minister
Paul Martin was walking to Rideau Hall, then telling Canadians what they
already knew: an election will be held June 28. The announcement was carried live
on all the networks.
But at The Growling Gator, no one noticed. At each end of the L-shaped bar
there's a television set and, as our leader went before the cameras, one was
tuned to TSN (which was broadcasting an old Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight from
1975) and the other to MuchMusic (the nation's music station was showing
Superstar USA, an American Idol-type reality show).
Although the young waitresses will gladly change the channel to suit the
whims of customers, nobody asked to see Martin making the most important speech of
his life. If an election had been called, it went by unremarked. Welcome to
cottage country on a long weekend.
Here in cottage county, people have different priorities than the politicians
in Ottawa. It's not an overstatement to say that most people here are
concerned about only about two things: whether there will be enough beer, and
sunshine, to last until Monday.
The Growling Gator is located on a prime piece of real estate. It overlooks
the beach in Grand Bend, the Southwestern Ontario burg nestled against Lake
Huron that can explode from its normal population of 1,000 to 40 times that on a
busy long weekend.
Al Altan is one of the two bartenders on duty at The Growling Gator this
Sunday. He says that most of his customers weren't paying attention to the
election call "because they're just worried about having fun." Besides, Altan says,
the election really began weeks ago.
"Paul Martin has been on the campaign trail for a long time," he notes.
Just a few steps up Main Street from Altan's bar is Time For A Break, a juice
and smoothie stand run by Rob Van Weezep.
"I think it was not a good idea," he says of Martin's decision to call the
vote over the Victoria Day holiday weekend.
Van Weezep believes that a better time for the Prime Minister to pull the
trigger would have been some point in the middle of the week. "People are just
interested to have a fun time," he says of the Victoria Day crowd. Even though
he came to Canada 38 years ago, Van Weezep remains a landed immigrant because
he never wanted to severe his ties to his native land, the Netherlands. This
means he won't be able to vote come the end of June.
"It doesn't bother me, let's put it that way," he says after declaring that the
people's representatives in Parliament are "all liars and cheaters."
Van Weezep's wife, Henny, is making a caf� latte alongside her husband. She
points out that the demographics of the Bend (as it's known) on a long weekend
are another reason that the Liberal leader's gamble was greeted with a
"Most of the people that are here - 80 per cent - are young people," she
Which isn't to say that nothing important happened at the time Martin called
on the Governor General. In fact, it was right about that time that the grey
clouds that had been blanketing Grand Bend all morning finally broke, and the
sun - which had been hiding behind a veil of violent thunderstorms since Friday
- came out for good. The trickle of people heading to the beach turned into a
Sitting at the edge of the beach was a trio belonging to the generation
mentioned by Henny Van Weezep. Jessie Miller, Shane Bourbommais and Ines Jelic are
all 18-year-old high school students from nearby London, the unofficial
capital of southwestern Ontario. They came to a cottage in Grand Bend on Friday, and
have been talking to people, drinking and having fun ever since.
Perched on a concrete picnic table, Miller says his fellow cottagers are
definitely not paying attention to federal politics this weekend.
"Right now, all they're caring about is getting beer," he says with a nod to
the growing crowds on the beach. "They don't know what's going on. Everyone's
too drunk to care."
Bourbommais says that Victoria Day - or May Two-Four, as it's known in the
vernacular - is a last chance to let loose before his classmates have to "crack
down" (as he puts it) and start studying for finals.
As for the issues, the soon-to-be first-time voter says there's only one that
matters. "Education, that's the thing," Bourbommais says.
Further up the main strip, close to the town's one major intersection, Matt
MacDonald says he wasn't watching TV or sitting by the radio at one o'clock,
but he knew from reading the newspaper that Martin was poised to send voters to
MacDonald, a London resident, owns a unit in a nearby trailer park. He
doesn't discount the possibility that the choice of the long weekend was a
calculated one on Martin's part. He believes the federal Liberals are "trying to manage
some publicity issues," by which he means they need to divert the public's
attention away from the sponsorship scandal.
But will it work?
If an election call falls on a long weekend, will anybody hear it?
MacDonald doubts it.
"This is the start of summer. This is blowing off steam from the winter," he
Many of the visitors to Grand Bend are staying at camp spots in the Pinery, a
provincial park just up the road. One of its main attractions is its dunes
and beaches, which is where Phil Sloan - a cottager from Detroit - was talking a
walk Sunday afternoon. Although he can't vote in Canada, he does say he had a
vague idea that a campaign was about to begin.
"I was aware of it, but that's about the extent of it," he says. Sloan says
he prefers the shorter election campaigns on this side of the border, as
opposed to the "years of campaigning" in the run-up to a presidential vote.
One thing that Sloan does think is an advantage of the American system,
however, is the fixed election dates. Sloan is not sold on the idea of
giving a country's leader the power to call an election at any time -
he thinks this puts too much power in the hands of one person. And although
few here seem to care, that one person has just given up his own long