The Doc Project

When AIDS came to town: the divisive history of Devine Lake

Jennifer Warren grew up in rural Ontario, in the heart of cottage country, at the height of the AIDS crisis. The epidemic seemed far away from country life — until a lakeside lodge announced new plans, and shook the whole community.
Devine Lake is located in the Muskoka area of Ontario's cottage country.

By Jennifer Warren

Ever had the feeling of knowing something and not knowing something at the same time? 

That's how I felt about Devine Lake growing up.

I'm from a very small town — more of a village, really — called Port Sydney. It's a pretty area in the Muskoka region of Ontario. It's cottage country. Growing up, there was a sign leading into the village that said "Port Sydney: Home of 500 nice people... and one old grouch." (Thirty years later, it's since changed to "800 nice families... and one old grouch.")

My parents ran the local pub, and I started washing dishes there when I was about 12 years old. It was about the same time that regulars in the pub started talking about Devine Lake Lodge, and how it was suddenly going to be full of gay people... with AIDS.

I didn't even know what AIDS was, but it was clear that people were really scared of it. And whatever was being planned over at Devine Lake, they wanted no part in it. 

I didn't even know what AIDS was, but it was clear that people were really scared of it. And whatever was being planned over at  Devine  Lake, they wanted no part in it. 

Worry and speculation about Devine Lake Lodge rolled over the community like a storm cloud. A town hall meeting took place in Port Sydney about whatever was being planned over at Devine Lake. I never asked questions about what happened but, given how angry people in the pub were, I knew things probably got ugly.

I just had the feeling that I shouldn't ask too many questions.

There was a lot of talk about mosquitoes. Everybody was saying the same thing: if a mosquito bit someone at Devine Lake Lodge, and then flew across the lake and bit someone else, that person would get AIDS. Who knows  maybe it would be someone's baby.

Of course, this was never true. We know that now, and the scientific community knew that then. But this is what a group of people genuinely believed in rural Ontario in the late 1980s. 

But the ugly cloud wasn't my only memory of Devine Lake.

When I was in my late teens — probably five or six years after the town hall and the cloud of hatred that formed over my town — I went to a secret party at Devine Lake Lodge. 

It was a secret gay party. Everywhere I looked, I saw people from the community. The guy from the post office. Another guy from the IGA. People were dancing on the tables. For the first time ever, I saw someone in drag.

It was one of the best parties of my life.

Two memories, as different as night and day. Which was correct?

What really happened at Devine Lake? More than 20 years later, I decided it was time to find out.

My search was circuitous. I was told by many people that yes, of course they remembered what happened at Devine Lake, but they didn't want to talk about it. I made some incredibly hard discoveries, and some incredibly beautiful ones.

My search revealed the story of an unlikely friendship between a straight, married philanthropist in Toronto and a gay employee who would forever change him. It introduced me to two other men, Dan Goforth and Pierre Couture, who were integral to the gay history of Devine Lake, and who have proudly called Muskoka home ever since.

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      Uncovering what happened at Devine Lake lifted the lid on one of the most important mysteries of my own life — one that shaped who I was then, and who I've become now.

      About the producer

      Jennifer Warren
      Jennifer Warren is the acting senior producer of The Doc Project. She made this documentary while she was a digital producer for CBC Books, during which time a typed letter from Farley Mowat referring to tweets as "tweeps" became one of her prized possessions.

      Ever since making this documentary, she diligently likes every Facebook post from Muskoka Pride and highly recommends following them for a regular dose of happy. 

      Music credit: Pure by Jahzzar was used in this documentary.