Sudbury

New off-grid, low-cost villages are growing in the northern Ontario wilderness

The first citizens have moved into controversial new northern Ontario communities known as Boreal Forest Medieval Villages.

Ontario government says it is monitoring new communities being built in the Temiskaming wilderness

A private property sign is taped to a strap strung across the entrance to the Swan Lake boreal village north of Kirkland Lake.
A private property sign is taped to a strap strung across the entrance to the Swan Lake boreal village north of Kirkland Lake. (Erik White/CBC )

After carrying an armload of construction materials up a rough path cut through the underbrush, Charles Sule scrambles up a step ladder into a half-finished house at the top of the hill. 

"This is it. Chez me," said the 56-year-old, who recently moved from Toronto to become one of the first citizens of Swan Lake. 

That's the name given to a new community being built in the bush about a 40 minute drive north of the town of Kirkland Lake.

Standing on a hill overlooking an old logging clear cut, you can spot about a dozen trailers and other structures scattered over the landscape.

56-year-old Charles Sule stands in the doorway of the house he's building in the northern Ontario bush.
56-year-old Charles Sule moved from Toronto to become one of the first permanent residents of the community of Swan Lake. (Erik White/CBC )

It's in an unincorporated township, so there are lower taxes, less building rules and fewer costs for someone wanting a home of their own. 

"Less than 30 grand for a house of your dreams. House of my dreams anyway," said Sule. 

He is busy getting ready for the first winter in his new home. The to-do list includes putting in all the windows and insulation, getting his stove installed, putting in a rain barrel, getting solar panels up on the roof and getting enough firewood cut to last him through the cool months.

At the top of a hill, at the end of a rough path through the brush, is a small house under construction.
Charles Sule is busy getting his 10 by-24 foot house finished before winter and has future plans to add a porch, garden and pizza oven. (Erik White/CBC )

Sule also has to figure out what he'll do for a refrigerator, shower and toilet. Right now he has to walk down the hill to use the "comfort station" the community put in after consulting with the local health unit. 

The board of directors for Swan Lake, who represent the dozens of investors who bought a share from the Boreal Forest Medieval Villages company entitling them to a half-acre site, declined an interview.

They and some of the other communities being built on undivided land in unorganized areas have been under fire from existing cities and towns in Temiskaming, who want to see the province bring in tighter regulations for this new type of development. 

"Our whole point is to walk lightly on the land, so go ahead and regulate us," said Sule, who figures that a half-dozen people might stay in Swan Lake over this winter. 

"What less can we do?"

Another one of these communities is being built on bush land on the shores of Long Lake, up stream from the existing village of Charlton, not far from New Liskeard.

A sign pointing the way to the community of Swan Lake is nailed to a birch tree in the bush north of Kirkland Lake.
A sign pointing the way to the community of Swan Lake is nailed to a birch tree in the bush north of Kirkland Lake. (Erik White/CBC )

It's being called Longview. Alex McMurray says he is one of the four permanent residents, as well as being president of  the Boreal Forest Off-Grid Association that represents the 92 investors. 

"I think there's a lot of misconception on what it will look like. Because I don't think it's going to progress quickly. Most of our members haven't actually been here," said McMurray.

"This concept that we're somehow a subdivision is just so far off the mark."

McMurray says while some buying into Longview are just looking for a summer campsite, for him, preparing to survive the "major environmental disasters or the wars that seem to be on the horizon" means having access to land. 

A narrow dirt road runs through the thick northern Ontario forest.
The medieval villages in Temiskaming have been busy building roads through the bush so investors can access the half-acre plots they purchased. (Erik White/CBC )

He says so far the only permanent structure in the community is a building "related to waste management," adding he can't say more while in the midst of an environmental assessment ordered by the province. 

"We're not ever going to be a threat to the ecology or the local infrastructure or anything like that, because our goal is specifically to do things better and to improve exactly those systems," McMurray said. 

But Longview's neighbours are very concerned about what this new village could mean for the environment and local services.

Incoming Charlton-Dack Reeve Sandra Parkin stands in the municipal office.
Sandra Parkin, the incoming reeve for the municipality of Charlton-Dack, says concerns about the new development up the lake are 'front and centre' for her small community. (Erik White/CBC )

"It sounds absolutely dreamy," said Sandra Parkin, the incoming reeve of Charlton-Dack, a municipality of about 300 people downstream from Longview. 

"But then when you start looking at the underlying issues, the effect that it's going to have on the local communities and on the lake... It's a real shame, because you want the north to grow, but it's got to be sustainable."

The current reeve, Merrill Bond, has been lobbying the provincial government to bring in new regulations for these communities, especially when it comes to protecting drinking water

A sign reading "Long Lake" stands next to a calm body of water
The new boreal village of Longview is being built on the shores of Long Lake, upstream from the existing town of Charlton. (Erik White/CBC )

"It's ridiculous. Why can you go to this border and you got a set of rules here and a totally different set of rules here? And I mean totally different," said Bond. 

"And our government from what I can see are turning their heads. You take four or five of them in a community, you're going to destroy everything around you."

So far the Ontario government isn't saying much about the so-called medieval villages, but says it is keeping an eye on them to make sure rules are being followed.

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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