EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin is being transformed with the influx of new residents and business owners who bring with them fresh 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 over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.
by Heather Marshall
Most people weigh the pros and cons of launching a new business and starting a new life in a new location for months, if not years, before making the leap. Candice Irwin and her husband, Arthur Ross, definitely don’t fall into that category. Within six weeks of their first visit to Manitoulin in August 2020, they had sublet their Toronto apartment, bought a truck, packed up their belongings and, along with their two cats, taken up residence in an off-grid cabin outside Manitowaning.
It was a dramatic switch for the creative couple who had been living in the heart of an artistic community in downtown Toronto, working as independent creators and performers, for over a decade. Candice left her home in Victoria, BC to study dance at York University and eventually made it her career as a choreographer, producer, performer and teacher. Arthur had grown up on a farm outside Strathroy in Southwestern Ontario where he trained to become a fiddle player, competing across the province and the country. After working as a professional fiddler from coast to coast, he settled in Toronto, teaching and performing with a Newfoundland band, Screeched Inn.
As fulfilling as their urban lives were, the couple was typical of many millennials who dreamed of owning a home but were shut out of the region’s sky-high priced housing market. They had been saving money and checking out smaller cities throughout Southern Ontario, but repeatedly found that home ownership was beyond their budget. “We love swimming, kayaking and hiking and were driving several hours each weekend to do those things. So, we concluded our best bet was to buy a seasonal property outside the city that we could rent out when we weren’t using it ourselves, as housing was simply out of our reach,” they explained.
Both had heard of Manitoulin through their close friend and Island native, Michael Murray, but neither had ever visited prior to Michael’s suggestion that they spend a week at his mom Marian’s cottage. The last thing they expected when they began their vacation was that they’d end up renting the property for seven months while looking for a place to set down long-term roots. However, seven days was all it took to convince them to jump into Island life with both feet.
“When we started talking about moving up, we realized we had to get through a winter to make sure it would work for us, but we loved it from the start,” enthuses Candice. “Being off-grid, we had to run the generator every few days during January and February and we didn’t have all the amenities all the time, but we just learned to live differently.”
“We hand pumped our water and I have never had better tasting water in my life,” adds Arthur. “I think everybody should do something like we did at least once in a lifetime. It was such an amazing experience. We learned so much about ourselves.”
Their off-grid adventure ran from October 2020 to April 2021, when they had to either return to the city to resume their lease or give up their apartment and make Manitoulin their permanent home. Convinced they could make a go of it they took the plunge “even though we didn’t have a place to live yet!” laughs Candice.
“The day we gave up our apartment in March we were coming to see a house in Little Current. The weather was terrible. There had been freezing rain the night before and there were snowdrifts across the highway. We looked at each other and asked ourselves ‘did we make a big mistake?’”
The answer to that question came the a few weeks later, when they found a perfect house to purchase in Little Current that ticked off all the boxes. “I always wanted to be near water, having grown up on Vancouver Island, so finding a place with water, islands and farm landscapes feels like home.”
The wisdom of their decision was reinforced on their first day in town, when Arthur was in line at a local coffee shop and the person behind him in line overhead him say he was looking for work. Shortly after, Brian O’Neill, a local contractor, offered him a job on either a part- or full-time basis, an ideal scenario for Arthur who has continued to teach fiddle lessons online to clients in the city and is opening his studio to in-person students for the fall. In addition to maintaining his musical career, Arthur has begun learning the ins and outs of carpentry and electrical work.
Candice had already started a dance school, Body Stories Dance Instruction, in Mindemoya and Manitowaning during her first winter here. Although in-person instruction was curtailed by COVID-related shutdowns, she has continued to teach online. Barring further COVID interruptions, she will run three dance schools in Mindemoya, Manitowaning and Little Current during the current school year. As well, Candice has worked with Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists at 4elements Living Arts in Kagawong, running workshops and providing administrative support for a huge show slated for the end of September at the Elemental Festival. Her own dance performances will see her doing shows in Toronto later in the fall.
It’s still early days and it is taking time to make new friends, but the duo is grateful for the kindness of the locals they have met. “It’s a testament to the community that we feel very welcome here,” says Candice. “People are so quick to offer help or tell us where to find things. Neighbours have generously donated gardening tools to get us started or duplicate tools they have in the garage.”
“While I confess to missing live shows and restaurants in the city,” admits Arthur, “what I really love about living here is that we have a closer connection with nature, we’re surrounded by it. It’s so peaceful and we just have more time and space in our lives.”
Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and consultants in the National Capital Region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield 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 email@example.com.