Consuming the County: An Ethnography of the Present

SOSC 3012

Ethnography in a Global World

A view of a lake with the sun setting in the distance.
Emilie Moffat

The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged domestic migration away from metropolitan centres. Prince Edward County, in eastern Ontario, has been the target of migration for Torontonians and internationals alike for more than a decade, and an attractive tourist destination for nearly as long. The economic and social costs of enduring a public health lockdown in high density areas have intensified the flow of migrants and capital into Prince Edward County. The County, as it’s colloquially known, has a long history of migration and settler colonialism. Intensified tourism and migration have inflated real estate prices and caused friction with the established locals, themselves the progeny of past migrations. What does the present influx of economic and cultural migrants have in common with settler-colonialism exemplified by the post-American revolution settlement of the island by United Empire Loyalists? Through multi-site participant-observation in Wellington, Bloomfield, and Picton, Ontario, I have attempted to unpack the search for "better" circumstance or financial and social mobility within a "developed" country. This ethnography intends to use Amy S. Metcalfe’s notion of dispossession-complicity and Kenneth Little’s approach to the “beast of tourism” to elucidate the politics and consequences of Ontarians seeking their idea of the "good life" in Prince Edward County.

This ethnography of the present contains fieldnotes assembled over the course of the 2021 Winter academic term while I had moved back home during the COVID-19 global health crisis. I carried my notebook with me on trips through the major towns, both to record observations and ruminations about life under lockdown, the myth-making inherent in a tourist economy, and my own reckoning with the politics of my heritage. The vignettes from my fieldnotes used to inform this ethnography of the present were chosen with reference to Kenneth Little’s discussion of ethnographic paradigm (12). My aim is not to decide arbitrarily which encounters “matter” but to let a narrative emerge from my material and semiotic encounters through participant observation in touring and settling the County (Little 2).

Don’t Call Me a Tourist

“I sold my house 10 years ago after buying it for $100,000” says the cash register attendant from behind plexiglass. I ask if she was part of the subtle rush for land here when grape growers took notice of the soil, around the turn of the millennium. “No, there was nothin’ special here then.” I disagree, but do not say so. She goes on: “Bought another house after that - and sold that too. Now I live in my RV, wherever I want,” she finishes emphatically, but the limited freedom of an RV does little to assuage her resignation at having missed out on the County’s real estate rush.

“Like a permanent tourist,” I say blithely, referencing the global movement of paranoid retirees strategically qualifying for second passports and buying homes in different countries so as to never be completely at the mercy of a single country’s capricious bureaucrats. “Don’t ever call me a tourist,” she snaps back. I collect my purchase and pass through the automatic door.

Tourists are the County’s scapegoats. Most of society’s ills, popular thinking goes, can be laid at the feet of the amorphous blob of Torontonian tourists who arrive here each spring to swarm the beaches, tour the wineries by bus, and visit the art galleries. Impatient holiday makers in a queue of cars 4 kilometers long outside of Sandbanks Provincial Park are a favourite topic of discussion. Boasting the largest freshwater dune system in the world, the park is a popular destination for day trippers and long- term visitors alike, though few make it through the parks gates before a quota is fulfilled and park rangers begin telling those waiting outside to turn around and go home. The peppy back-and-forth between spurned guests and irate rangers bounce around the various gossip hubs, like a popular café in Bloomfield, after someone hears from someone who knows someone that so-and-so heard so-and-so say such- and-such to an angry tourist honking futilely after arriving too late for a realistic chance of getting into the park. Such gossip I’ve experienced firsthand while working at said café intermittently for several years, until the middle of this semester, and, as a testament to this story’s popularity, it crops up so consistently that I even hear it now, as an occasional guest.

There is an unmistakable tension in the County’s dependence on tourist business. Establishing a seasonal restaurant is a popular dream among my generation, providing the freedom to express one’s creativity in a quirky project, while also earning enough in high season to be able to close for the winter and travel; to not be beholden to one’s project all year round. The taqueria and Vietnamese restaurant in Wellington follow this model, as well as the taqueria and café in Bloomfield, and a sandwicherie in Picton. Capitalizing on tourism in the County comes with many challenges, from dense traffic on rural roads, to an abundance of rude and pushy patrons at every restaurant. The quaint charm of the County, here commodified for economic gain, causes friction for those trying to get around and live their normal lives in the shadow of the beast of tourism, and for the tourists who arrive with high hopes but find themselves disappointed and inconvenienced by not being the only ones in town.

Last summer, during the doomed reprieve that followed the first wave of COVID-19 lockdown, holiday makers were so abundant that even the local public parks were too busy for everyone to find a place to relax or eat their take-away fare from restaurants not permitted to serve indoors. So prevalent was this issue that stories abounded of residents having to disrupt tourist picnics on their property, and of the fruit orchards at a winery in Waupoos which were thrashed and trashed by tourist picnics turned rowdy.

Terra Nullis and Settler Colonialism

“During the latter half of the 1700’s and 1800’s, however, the Mississauga Indians (Waupoos Island was named after Chief Waupoos) of Prince Edward were decimated by diseases brought from Europe” (Collinson, “Historic Notes”).

Of course, the idyllic County is not apart from Canada’s wider inexorable enmeshment in settler-colonialism, that systemic eradication and replacement of an indigenous population, usually featuring a “grammar of race”, with the aim of subsuming a geographical area into the ravages of the capitalist global system (Wolfe 387). Driving through Prince Edward County now, the only signs of her original inhabitants are found in a few place names, like Carrying Place, Kenté School, Keint-He Winery, the bay of Quinte, etc. At the time European exploration up the St. Lawrence River began in earnest, it was the Cayuga people of the Iroquois Confederacy who dwelt in what is now Prince Edward County, though the archaeological record tells us that human habitation here began before the common era ("Settlers"). Several mounds thought to be related to the Hopewell cultures of the Ohio River Valley have been excavated on the County’s north coast (Wallbridge 3). Samuel De Champlain is assumed to be discussing what became Prince Edward County when he wrote that “all this lovely area was uninhabited for its Indian population had abandoned it for fear of Iroquois raiders” ("Settlers"). Several amateur archaeologists posit that the elusive Vinland of the Icelandic Viking Sagas reference the bay of Quinte’s natural growing grapes (King). Transient Populations and interlopers followed.  Euro-normative society began here after Britain lost America’s War of Independence and awarded lands in Ontario to various United Empire Loyalists (Collinson). By 1790, most of the land in the County had been apportioned off to white settlers from New York via Kingston, and the 1830s saw nearly all of the land settled (Collinson). New waves of immigration from Europe followed.

I was born in 1996 and have spent most of my life in Prince Edward County. The community has always had a charming “everybody-knows-everybody” quality. Geographically, the County is an aberration, protruding into Lake Ontario in the shape of what has always looked to me like two rabbits sharing an embrace. Spared by lucky chance a proximity to a major urban centre, the County has escaped the all-consuming blob that is Western Ontario’s nebulous urban sprawl.  The nearest Highway, Ontario’s 401, cuts across the lake’s north shore, through Trenton and Belleville, but the County itself is a detour. On a drive south from the highway I hear a man discussing on the radio that “sometime in the early 2000s some ambitious viticulturalists from Niagara began buying up land.” County wine is trending upwards in popularity, but it still resembles Niagara wine in that the climate produces sweet white grapes relatively well but heartier red grapes struggle. Eventually, entrepreneurs took notice. The hotelier who ran   Toronto’s   Drake Hotel   opened   a   location   in Wellington, The Drake Devonshire, and ever since has claimed that they brought cosmopolitan culture to a rural backwater. In fact, they, like the tourists and developers who followed, were cashing in on the uniqueness of the place in relation to the rest of the province.

From the US border in Fort Erie and St. Catherines to Port Hope, far to the east of Toronto, Lake Ontario is cut off from the rest of the province by interconnected highways that form a kind of ring road. From Grimsby and Stoney Creek in Niagara to Port Hope, and Coburg in the east, main streets with historical charm and urban density have been bypassed by the four lane arteries sustaining the age of the automobile. Not so in Prince Edward County; as a deviation from the Toronto-Kingston Corridor, no major highway has been built across the island. Therein lies part of its charm – getting places is slow-going here, even more so when tourist traffic is part of the equation.

In the County, the major towns of Wellington, Bloomfield, and Picton resemble colonial or frontier towns, with one major thoroughfare or main street hosting shop fronts, and loyalist-era homesteads in the surrounds. These homesteads still sport architectural motifs of the time period, like large front lawns with no fences demarcating property lines, white gables ornamenting large front and/or wrap- around porches, and pastel shutters adorning windows: all bearing blue and gold plaques from the Heritage Association declaring them important to the County’s history.

Several new subdivisions, of the dreaded cookie-cutter, Mc-Mansion variety, have sprung up on the outskirts of each town (Wagner). More are in the planning phase, but luckily the municipal infrastructure cannot yet sustain them and so they are on hold (“Waterworld”).

The New Logic of Migration

The loyalist land appropriation by the crown was an act of erasure. The burgeoning new society piggybacking on the County’s separate and splendid self-characterization represents a new, subsuming erasure. Again, land declared "empty" is earmarked for invasion. Displacement now occurs within the capitalist system – there is no explicitly racialized or gendered regime declaring who is welcome and who is not (though structural racism is tacitly active here and everywhere), but those who wish to gain title by virtue of the zeros in their bank account are invited to slice themselves off a piece of the County.

I have moved back to Prince Edward County during the novel coronavirus health crisis, and recently found a house for rent in Wellington after staying at my family home for some months. On Wellington main street, people come and go, alone or in pairs. It runs east-west along the northern shore of an inlet. Lake Ontario’s wind swell churns behind the south-side century homes.

Droll quarantine days are punctuated intermittently with cautious trips to the shops on main street. There, between the new rituals of sanitization and purification that govern our social discourse, I can observe the comings and goings of townsfolk and tourists alike. A grocery store, a pharmacy, and a hardware store, as well as the Canada Post office, and a physiotherapy practice are focal points, the space between them filled with empty restaurants and shops deemed non-essential. Those spaces where people expected to congregate are shut down for public safety, and those allowed to remain open have either changed their expectations or were already meant to be solitary experiences. 

Businesses in the County want to sell their wares and bring a continuous flow of vitality to the area, with the concomitant risk of Covid contamination notwithstanding. The local property owners, writ-large, are chuffed at the external demand increasing their household wealth on paper, whether they act on it and cash-out or not. These are all features of what Little calls the “spectral phantasmagoria of neoliberal capitalism” (8), where material aspirations informed by an ideology of "growth-over-everything" impel popular narratives of the "good life."

The County is reliably swamped with tourists in the spring, summer and autumn, and cozily catatonic in the winter. The “beast of tourism” as Little (18) calls it, permeates everything. The County itself is being packaged and sold to Ontarians, Canadians, Americans and Europeans as the answer to their gripes with late-stage capitalism. Here, they are told, they can experience more than just relaxation – there’s culture! That effervescent concept of wholesomeness and tradition, the absence of which pervades anglophone Canada’s reflexive insecurity. Art, viticulture, sandy beaches, all are marketed as a kind of “paradise production” (Little 9), defining the County to outsiders - outsiders who wish to possess some of the County, either transiently as tourists or in perpetuity as homeowners. This act of possessing, through presence or direct purchase and settlement, ever so slightly changes the County, creates new possibilities. It also forecloses upon the dreamy stasis of my youth here. The influx of tourists and settlers alike insist that those trying to capture some of this paradise for themselves may end up getting more than they bargained for. Is this narrative of influx, crowding, and change, consequential for any of the County’s residents, past or future?

During another excursion, I sit watching the coming and goings at the café where I used to work but am now a regular customer. Many of the elderly regulars are here too. Some quiet and watchful, others chirping effortlessly in polished "received pronunciation" British accents, chuckling at a Thatcher-esque pitch and deploying vocabulary unknown in the humble local parlance. They remind me of my grandparents’ generation, which has me wondering about the waves of emigration that settled this place, and about the phenomenology of historical events; settler-colonialism is demarcated as a discrete event in my mind, when really it unfolded over centuries. Where does the distinction lie between colonists and immigrants? Are they just different words for the same phenomena, with years between, like the politically loaded difference between an immigrant and an expat?

The owner/operator of the café is of Ukrainian origin and as far as I know they were settled on the prairies with their countrymen in the first half of the 20th century, and then some headed eastward to Ontario and Quebec after the second world war, coinciding with a new wave of eastern European migration in the wake of that disaster. I have heard her describe at least part of a childhood spent on a farm in Saskatchewan, followed by years in Ottawa and eventually Toronto. She moved to the County some twenty years ago and fell in love with a German émigré. She speaks from time to time about moving here after a previous divorce with her adopted daughter in tow and having bought the house and café. I ponder the nature of being a “local,” and the Bloomfield café owner’s hard-earned status as such (as considered by the elderly farming population which has been here for generations, and who are her main source of year-round business). The term is so loaded with meaning and is incredibly important to people from all over; we all yearn to be part of a community. But how can any of us consider ourselves a “local” if we are innately part of a settler community?

Consuming The County

A small café in Wellington, GoodMorning, was a new attraction when I moved here in autumn. Before then it was difficult to find a frothy cappuccino and hearty deli food in off-season Wellington. On our first trip, the young staff were bright, cheery, and exceptionally awkward – asking us after every item ordered if we were going to go eat and drink in a park, if we needed extra cutlery and serviettes, if we wanted it heated, wrapped, in a plastic bag or paper… on and on it went. The Tourism Beast was everywhere, trammeling social interactions and trying to fit us into its ideal form of consumption and being. The pandemic has somehow only increased its manic social implications. Our next few visits, however, featured a burly, bearded man and jovial conversation.

This time, that same burly man with a manbun and a beard tells us, through his see- through plastic mouth shield (as opposed to an approved medical grade mask-and-filter combination), that another lockdown is coming, his friend in government told him so, that it’s unfair to small businesses like his to be shut down by government directive while so-called big-box stores like Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Canadian Tire, etc. are allowed to remain open. While steeping the tea bags of our nascent London Fog lattes, he insists that all his friends who have had or known someone who’s had Coronavirus insist that it’s no worse than the common cold. The only person he knows of in his extended circle to have died from the disease also had “Stage 3 cancer.” He takes this as grounds that the virus is nothing to fear, that lockdowns aren’t necessary, and that his ability to maintain cashflow should not be infringed upon by nuance-free government policy. All this he rallies against directly over top of our lattes, his non-approved face-covering doubtless failing to stop all the moisture particles from his mouth from landing in and around our beverages. I leave feeling uncomfortable. I search for a rootedness here that Toronto’s concrete hustle could not provide. It is rewarding to give local pubs and cafes our patronage, and to get to know the faces behind the trendy signs and colourful storefront facades. I understand the importance of foot traffic for the food service industry – especially those who have only recently opened in a quaint tourist town, likely having given up higher-paying jobs in the metropole for more meaning and quality of life in the County.

Playing the Tourist

The same Wellington café is busier this time, the day before another shutdown begins. The man behind the counter remembers me. We chat about Easter plans. I ask if his family will be getting together. He says they are the only ones of their clan living in the County – the rest are spread between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. They have been in the County for a year and love it.

Outside, a man stops to take pictures of a menu posted on the window of Wellington’s Japanese Whisky bar. I mention in passing that they serve the best chicken wings I’ve ever had. He tells me he’s from the County originally but lives in Belleville now (to the North). He says he remembers when everyone knew each other across the entire island, and that his generation shared a universal desire to escape what was to them a rural backwater, a notion I recall sharing as a teen, despite what appears to be at least a 15-year age difference between us. He can’t believe how much it’s changed, and how much he yearns to move back here. In chatting some more, he reveals that he is married to the sister of my mother’s childhood best friend and knows my parents by name from long ago.

What is lost in migration? Does anyone in the suburbs around Picton and Wellington (those cookie-cutter monstrosities crammed side-by-side in what used to be plots of farmland) know the history of the land, or the names of their neighbours? This strikes me as what the conservative impulse in the immigration debate is founded upon, a nostalgia for the way things were before all those outsiders arrived to crowd out their memories of a place. I see non-white tourists sometimes, but the majority of those I know to have recently bought property here, and most of the tourists I encounter on the street or at restaurants, are in fact, classifiable as white. Settler-colonial stock, often middle-aged. Some millennials are present, priced out of the housing market in the GTA, but also many retirees with cash to burn, driving up prices here and inspiring a sell-off.

Layers of place-making and conviviality assemble like strata of sediment over the County, one displacing the other. Pre-historical remnants jut up into the present but lie forgotten. Centuries of indigenous migration and generations of settler encroachment have carved and remade the County over and over. Internal migration is remaking her again. In the vein of Marta Savigliano’s discussion of the political economy of the Tango, “who is the victim?” (50). Canadian indigenous history is sadly absent from the County’s mainstream narrative. 200 years is a long time, and settler-colonial societies are distinct, in my experience, for their selective memories. The monuments of settler place-making are demarcated faithfully, with signage, museums, and historical archives. 


A late-night cruise brings us to Picton’s newest cannabis dispensary in search of CBD products for pain relief. A cheery, older woman behind the counter welcomes us in and begins divulging her life story as if she had been waiting all day for someone to talk to. She’s retired and was in need of a project, and now runs a hip little boutique store in Ontario’s best holiday destination. The walls are white, but the green quartz countertops and gold accents make this dispensary somewhat less clinical than others I’ve been to.

The woman discusses moving from Toronto to take advantage of the County’s new popularity, and to escape the sprawling, congested density of the province’s economic centre. I start to reflect on my own positionality: am I exempt from the collective scorn we heap on the tourists that sustain our wineries, galleries, and small businesses for having been born here, or does moving back to my childhood home from Toronto out of necessity implicate me in trying to claim a bit of the County’s success for myself, now that no longer seems somewhere worth escaping?

While first making notes about this experience, I left out the poor, troubled man who interrupted our conversation with a wet cough and a dirty 5-dollar bill, asking emphatically but politely for whatever she could sell him within his means to alleviate his pain, while scratching his arms. Opiates are a known but politely ignored spectre in both Prince Edward and neighboring Hastings County. My ingrained bourgeois sensibilities originally halted me sharing the encounter, perhaps because I felt bad for the man, or perhaps because I was embarrassed for him. That night, reading Ronald Wright’s novelization of the conquest of the Inca Empire by Francisco Pizarro and his goons, the central character, Waman, states wistfully to himself that “before the Spaniards, there were no beggars” (Wright 294).

There is an underclass here in the County, but they are the detritus of global neoliberal capitalism, living in RVs or post-war bungalows, hidden behind the loyalist homesteads and old brick shops, watching their home (by past appropriation) price them out and move on without them. This is one of the ironies of settler-colonialist states: they eliminate and replace, and shove aside whoever remains of the indigenous, and then leave even their own behind in the rapacious scramble for more.

House prices here are rising apace with those in the GTA ("P.E.C. Real Estate Trends"). There is no public transit, little in-ground plumbing, and most of the coastline is owned privately. The now is a “beast-time”, not just the height of summer when the roads are stuck and the provincial parks too full for the yearning public escaping Toronto’s capitalist ruins for a day, but all year round now as development unfolds and changes the storied landscape (Little 9). Time will tell if the land rush, the paradise production, and the increasing density will amount to a more equitable society in this time-capsule of Canadian settler-colonial history.


I am uncomfortably aware of my own complicity in the logic of settler colonialism. This ethnographic exercise has made that appreciation unavoidable. Patrick Wolfe writes that “invasion is a structure, not an event” (qtd. In Bhambra). Here in the County an invasion is unfolding, but it is a microcosm of the logic of settler colonialism which has defined this land for centuries, of the wider structure in which the nation-state finds provenance, turning in on itself. 

A third province-wide shut down prevented me from making a purposeful trip to the Tyendinaga Reserve to the north-east of Prince Edward County. Amy Metcalfe writes of the necessity of reflecting sensitively on nature and place as an essential part of “settler-witnessing” (81). In the beast time of tourist mythmaking and appropriation, the myopic euro-centric story of this land is prevailing, and new possibilities of disenfranchisement and erasure are emerging. I am a perpetrator and a victim of the spectre of neoliberal capitalism, like everyone struggling to find their place and earn a living, but that duality does not assuage complicity. For my part, I have begun to avail myself of the resources of the non-profit Mohawk online language learning portal, as a microscopic gesture of anti-colonial witnessing (Metcalfe 82), which I hope in some small way will open further possibilities for reflection. The County’s paradise production will continue inexorably, but the stories we tell, and who we listen to, can perhaps change.

Emilie Moffat

Emilie Moffat is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies and Photography at OCAD University. Her interests include film photography and backcountry canoeing. She enjoys brut prosecco and smashing the patriarchy. Emilie plans to obtain a Masters of Architecture when her time at OCADU is finished. She is based in Prince Edward County, for now.

Works Cited & Consulted

  • Bhambra, Gurminder. “Settler Colonialism.” Global Social Theory, August 4, 2015.
  • Collinson, Jim. “Prince Edward County Historic Notes.” Prince Edward County Heritage Advisory Committee. Prince Edward County, November 18, 1999.
  • King, Andrew. “THE CURIOUS CASE OF RONWAYANA: A Viking Among the Quinte Mohawks.” OTTAWA REWIND, April 14, 2016. among-the-quinte-mohawks/.9) Collinson, Jim. “Prince Edward County Historic Notes.” Prince Edward County Heritage Advisory Committee. Prince Edward County, November 18, 1999.
  • Little, Kenneth. On the Nervous Edge of an Impossible Paradise: Affect, Tourism, Belize. New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2020.
  • Metcalfe, Amy S. “Witnessing Indigenous Dispossession and Academic Arboricide: Visual Auto-Ethnography as Anti-Colonial Didactic.” Visual Arts Research 45, no. 2 (2019).
  • “Prince Edward County Real Estate Trends.” Zolo. Accessed April 2, 2021. county-real-estate/trends.
  • Savigliano, Marta. “Chapter 2: Tango as a Spectacle of Sex, Race, and Class.” Essay. In Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Routledge, 2019.
  • “Settlers - Samuel De Champlain and Native Canadians.” Naval Marine Archive - The Canadian Collection. Accessed April 2, 2021.,European%20to%20discover%20the%20area.&text=He%20even%20agreed%20to%20join,the%2 0Mohawk%20Valley%20in%201615.
  • Wagner, Kate. “McMansions 101: What Makes a McMansion Bad Architecture?” McMansion Hell, August 8, 2016.
  • Wallbridge, T. C. On Some Ancient Mounds upon the Shores of the Bay of Quinte. Canadiana. S.l.: s.n., 1860.
  • “Waterworld.” Waterworld | The Times. Accessed April 1, 2021.
  • Wright, Ronald. The Gold Eaters. New York: Riverhead Books. 2016.
  • Wolfe, Patrick. Settler Colonialism & the Elimination of the Native. Kurrajong NSW: Subversion Press, 2006.