EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin is being transformed with the influx of new residents and business owners who bring with them new ideas, experiences and perspectives that are enriching the area. Some individuals and families are still unpacking boxes, having only moved in the past month or two, while others made the move over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.
by Heather Marshall
New arrivals’ reasons for choosing the Island range from individuals returning to their roots, having left the Island as young people to pursue careers, to retiring baby boomers who are turning seasonal cottages and camps into permanent homes. Others have sought an escape from the rat race and confines of city living, particularly since COVID-19 struck. Still others have journeyed from far-flung destinations around the globe–some of whom came following Internet searches that enticed them to explore the Manitoulin.
Roy Johannink and his spouse, Jennifer Smith, both long-time residents of England, fall squarely into the latter camp.
A chance encounter at a mutual friend’s wedding roughly five years ago sparked a romance between the recent divorcees and the quest to find a new place to build a life together. Canada was a logical choice for Jennifer, who was born here but moved to England with her family when she was five. She always longed to return to her native country but the realities of adult life, a career and raising a family had not previously made that possible. Canada was equally alluring to Roy, who was originally from the Netherlands but had moved to England in his mid-20s. He had only lived in major cities like Amsterdam, London and Norwich for most of his adult life but yearned for the romance of rural living. The idea of living off the grid–in the bush, surrounded by wildlife and nature–was a magnet that drew him.
The couple’s initial plan was simply to find a holiday home somewhere in Ontario, where Jennifer was born, for annual vacations as they continued their working lives in England. With that in mind, they were ready to simply throw darts at a map and see where they landed. They began searching online for four-season homes under 50 thousand pounds (approximately $86,000 Canadian). When the Manitoulin Island came up, which neither had ever heard of before, they investigated further to find out what to do there and whether were there hospitals, schools and stores. The Island ticked all the right boxes so, in November 2018, they made the leap and purchased a cabin on leased land in M’Chigeeng and a used truck from a local car dealership–both sight unseen.
“We really took a gamble but, while we knew we would dearly miss our children and grandchildren, we were at a crossroads and had to make a decision about our future,” says Roy.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were going into or even how to get here!” laughs Jennifer. “We flew as far as Sudbury and took a few expensive cab rides across the city to finally get to a bus that got us as far as Espanola. Thankfully, our realtor, Shannon Fenerty, came to pick us up and drive us to our truck so we could get groceries and start to settle in when we first arrived.”
Jennifer and Roy first made a month-long trip to their cabin and fell in love with the area and life on reserve. They were so smitten that, after a brief return to England for two months, they made the decision to make Manitoulin their permanent home at the end of January 2019.
While the trip went more smoothly the second time around, they were in for a shock when they encountered minus 37°C temperatures and snow as deep as their hips blocking the way to their door. They were excited to see a neighbour, Deanna Smith, going by with shovels and assumed she had come to help them. At 6’10”, Roy is hard to miss but, somehow, Deanna didn’t notice the desperate looking duo and kept on going. In the end, Roy used the only instrument he could find – a paddle – to shovel out a path. What might have led to hard feelings between neighbours instead ended up being a fast friendship, as Deanna later learned they were newcomers and made sure the couple got all the help and support they needed from that point on.
Among the early surprises about life in Canada was the discovery of just how cold it is to use an outhouse in freezing winter weather. “We sure weren’t prepared for that first winter,” admits Roy. “We certainly discovered the meaning of cold.”
Finding jobs wasn’t easy either. Work came quickly for Jennifer, who had been a nurse in England specialized in respiratory medicine. She was scooped up by the Victorian Order of Nurses, putting her knowledge to work providing home care to Manitoulin residents. “It has been an ideal job for me,” explains Jennifer. “I’m able to meet new people and get to know the place I now call home. It has been a perfect fit for my interests and personality.”
Although Roy had been in banking for nearly 20 years with HSBC in London before starting his own financial advisory business, the lack of a Canadian work permit curtailed his early opportunities for employment. When his paperwork finally came through, he found a job in an entirely different field that he absolutely loves, working with Wahl Water in Mindemoya. It has given him the chance to put his administrative experience to work but also to acquire new skills helping to install water systems around the Island, which recently necessitated swimming in the North Channel in late September on a chilly, windy, wavy day.
The warmth of the reception they’ve received from local people has more than compensated for the unaccustomed cold and bureaucratic challenges of getting the right paperwork to qualify for jobs. They have nothing but praise for the kind locals who took them under their wing and have helped them adjust to their new lives.
“Deanna Smith and her family in Spring Bay treated us like family,” says Jennifer fondly. “They made it their mission to include us in events to meet other people and even had us for our first Christmas, complete with presents.”
As much as they loved living on reserve, the couple decided to move to a place with a parcel of land outside Providence Bay so Roy could live out his dream of living in the bush. The couple purchased a home on 10 acres of land, planting roots for a long-term future. As soon as an additional 90 acres surrounding their property went up for sale, they bought that too. Roy just can’t have too much bush to please him.
Jennifer and Roy have few regrets about moving lock, stock and barrel from urban England to the wilderness of Manitoulin, beyond missing family back in England. “I may not have been able to find the kind of high-profile work I did before, but I also no longer live with constant stress and being on the job nearly around the clock,” says Roy. “We used to watch TV shows about living off-grid and now we are really doing it. It’s amazing.”
“When I look back now, I cannot believe we did what we did,” adds Jennifer. “But we love the Island, the people, the scenery, the pace of life and our jobs. We have been made to feel so welcome here by everyone we’ve run across. It’s lovely to feel so at home.”
Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and communications consultants in the national capital region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield summer cottage their permanent home. A lifelong learner, Heather loves discovering new things and people and relishes the opportunity to write about newcomers to the Manitoulin. If you would like to share your story or know of recent arrivals we should meet, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.