Sudbury

These wilderness seekers plan to live in 'medieval villages' in Ontario's north despite opposition

There are plans to carve new communities out of the northern Ontario wilderness. Groups have bought bushland in the Temiskaming District to build villages that hundreds of people could call home. But existing cities and towns are not rolling out the welcome mat.

Province saying little about controversial new villages in unincorporated areas of Temiskaming

Plans to build three 'medieval villages' in the northern Ontario wilderness, including this former clear cut near Swan Lake north of Kirkland Lake, has municipal leaders calling for the province to step in. (Boreal Forest Medieval Villages/Facebook)

There are plans to carve new communities out of the northern Ontario wilderness. 

Groups of individual investors purchased three parcels of bushland in the Temiskaming area and plan to build villages that hundreds of people could one day call home. 

But existing cities and towns are not rolling out the welcome mat, worried such communities in unincorporated areas will harm the environment and stretch local services.

Temiskaming's municipalities want the provincial government to put a stop to it, but the would-be villagers say they're following all the rules and working closely with the province as they plan their new homes. 

Charles Sule built one of the first homes in the new community of Swan Lake and hopes to start living there full time in the spring. (Submitted by Charles Sule)

"Swan Lake, Ontario. That is the official name that we chose," said Charles Sule, a Toronto man who built one of the first houses on a 437-acre (nearly 177-hectare) property northeast of Kirkland Lake.

He is one of the 190 people who paid Boreal Forest Medieval Villages, the company that originally bought the former clear cut in Lee Township on the shores of Swan Lake.

That $2,000 plus an annual fee entitles Sule to a half-acre (0.2-hectare) site, where he has built a small house he and his wife plan to move into in the spring.

The 55-year-old, who is couch surfing right now after getting rid of his Toronto apartment, said he was drawn to the "adventure" of starting a simpler life in the wilderness. 

"And I liked the community idea that we are going to build a small, close-knit group of people," Sule said. 

"We are all strangers to each other and have nothing in common except what's coincidental."

Lauren Rivard of Hamilton, said she thought this "medieval villages" thing looked "creepy," and at first thought her husband was "nuts" to invest in real estate in the northern Ontario bush.

Now, she hopes to live in Swan Lake one day. Until then, she plans to spend summers camping there.

Some of the members of these village associations have put up cabins or moved in trailers, while others have built roads into the remote Temiskaming properties. (Boreal Forest Medieval Villages/Facebook)

"I've been up twice and it was probably the best moments of my life," said Rivard.

Like many others looking north in recent years, she said she was motivated by the housing crisis in southern Ontario.

"I have three kids and I will never be able to own a home," Rivard said. 

"And I mean for the price we paid, you can't get better than that."

Rivard sat on the board for Swan Lake and was involved in plans for the new community, which currently has no electricity, sewer, water or other services.

She said they envision an eco-friendly community, where residents grow their own food, use sustainable power sources like solar panels and deal with their waste with composting toilets.

Some people investing in the medieval villages plan to use the property for camping or maybe building a cottage, but others hope to live there full time and build a self-sustaining eco-friendly community. (Lauren Rivard/Facebook)

There are similar plans at two other properties that Boreal Forest Medieval Villages, which declined an interview, has now handed off to the investors:

  • A 196-acre (79-hectare) parcel north of Kirkland Lake first purchased in 2017.
  • A community that calls itself "Longview," sitting on 185 acres (75 hectares) on Long Lake, not far from the 600 people in the town of Charlton, about 50 kilometres northwest of New Liskeard.

Long Lake is where Charlton draws its drinking water from, raising concerns about a new village of several hundred people living on its shores without municipal sewer systems or septic tanks.

It is on a long list of concerns from the existing cities and towns of Temiskaming, which are asking the province to step in and end these developments.

Danny Whalen, president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, says while the north welcomes newcomers, these new villages will be harmful for the region and its environment. (Erik White/CBC)

"They seem to think that this unincorporated area is virgin, unmapped land, but it's not," said Danny Whalen, a Temiskaming Shores city councillor and president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities.

He's worried that sewage from these villages would pollute local waters, and while not paying property taxes, these newcomers will stretch services like fire protection, landfills and health care.

Whalen said northern municipalities have been "banging their heads for years" trying to get the province to sell them Crown land to build more homes and expand their own communities.

He said cities and towns have also been concerned about the growing number of people moving to unincorporated areas like Goulais River near Sault Ste. Marie and Kenogami near Kirkland Lake that are blossoming just outside of municipal limits.

But Whalen and other leaders see the planning of entire communities that could be home to hundreds of people as a real risk to northern Ontario.

"The strain that it's going to put on the municipalities that are surrounding these communities is just horrendous," said Lois Perry, a councillor with Coleman Township and chair of the Temiskaming Municipal Association.

"We just need some regulations in place. We want assessments to be done. The same kind of things we need to do in an organized townships ... especially on a scale like this.

"In an organized municipality, it takes years to develop waterfront property and here they've just plunked themselves down there and they're at it."

Would-be villagers say they are working closely with the Ontario government and have followed all the rules for planning their communities and building new roads and infrastructure into the wilderness properties. (Boreal Forest Medieval Villages/Facebook)

Perry asked the Ontario minister of municipal affairs and housing in December to issue a zoning order stopping these projects until they can be further studied.

She said she hasn't heard back, but "we're northerners and we don't give up easy."

The villagers of Swan Lake say they are working closely with the province, and have followed all the rules in building roads into their property and planning their community.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing provided no information to CBC about these villages, but the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks confirmed that the province is aware of these developments and the two ministries are "working collaboratively" on a government response.

The village on the shores of Long Lake is calling itself Longview, but the nearby town of Charlton is worried the development could pollute their drinking water. (Boreal Forest Medieval Villages/Facebook)

Sule, who has studied environmental science, rejects the suggestion Swan Lake will be harmful for the planet since those planning to move there are "of a green mind."

"I can't imagine we're going to make more of an impact living there on that small area as opposed to what we would do if we were all living in an asphalt city and relying on city services." 

Despite the cool reception from locals, Rivard remains hopeful that their community will one day become a dot on the map of northern Ontario. 

"We can understand that some people don't want us there, which is understandable if you don't know us. I think a lot of people see a commune-type thing and don't really understand it," she said.

"I wish there could be a bit more faith in us. We're all people who love the area and want to see everyone there happy.

"Someone else could have bought it and put a giant resort there."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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