Home on the dock
Photographs by Ashley Fraser
Anti-cancer crusader Dan Demers traded Glebe living for a farmhouse on the water. His fave room? The dock
On the sunny banks of the Rideau River, Dan Demers sits, jeans rolled up, feet in the water, a cold beer at his side. Eyes half-closed against the light, he watches his three-year-old, Savannah, toss sticks into the water. He wiggles his feet slightly. Fish nibbling his toes? Could be.
“Shoulda brought down the rod,” he remarks idly. Pause. “And maybe another beer.”
It’s a sleepy summer afternoon in Demers’ favourite space — a bend in the slow-moving river at his home, Altoba Farm. Almost on cue, a canoeist glides past a giant willow hanging over the water. “Hey,” Demers calls, lifting his hand. Savannah lobs a stick, but misses.
It’s a world away from the city and power politics, but not as far as you’d think. Located on River Road, just south of Hunt Club, the idyllic century-old farm is an easy commute from Demers’ job downtown as the Canadian Cancer Society’s director of public issues.
Known for his teddy-bear looks and grizzly bear approach to getting the job done, the 52-year-old takes on the Prime Minister’s Office, politicians of all stripes, Big Tobacco, provincial governments, industry and the media in an effort to raise public awareness of everything from the human cost of unsubsidized cancer medications (in some provinces, patients and their families go into debt to gain access to medications that are free in other provinces) to the increasing burden on long-term caregivers.
“Politics is a very intense environment,” Demers says. “So when you get to have a change in government policy that benefits or protects people, it makes you feel as though you’re doing something worthwhile. And the great thing about being in Ottawa and working for a charity in politics is that most people in government really want to do the right thing. Our job is to help them understand how to make that happen.”
But that’s his day job. Late in the afternoon, Demers sheds his suit and tie to become Farmer Dan, the easy-going, tractor-driving, garden-tending agriculturalist with an interest in bee-keeping, dirt bikes and fishing. Every sunny summer day he greets his wife, Jo McCutcheon, 44, a historian and part-time University of Ottawa lecturer, swings Savannah up into his arms, and heads out the door for some daughter-daddy time at his favourite space — the hammock by the river. Not that other spots on the farm aren’t equally appealing: there’s the gracious old trees in the yard next to the white farmhouse, fields of wildflowers, and a patch of raspberries and Saskatoon berry bushes, in a nod to his Alberta childhood and McCutcheon’s in Manitoba.
Still, it’s the waterfront that draws him, as it did when the then Glebe urbanites first spotted the farm five years ago. A former horse-breeding stable near the Rideau Carleton Raceway, the property seemed a perfect compromise: Demers’ dream of a cottage balanced by McCutcheon’s determination to be near the city. Expropriated in the 1950s, the leasehold farm is now owned by the National Capital Commission and is part of the Greenbelt.
“I started looking for properties in the Greenbelt, and it was the right combination of city living, but literally having a hobby farm or a cottage in the city. The place was overgrown more than rundown — there were fallen trees, weeds. Jo’s thought was ‘Oh my God’,” he laughs, “mine was ‘Yeah!’ But what struck me was the potential. It was a place by the river that, provided you remember to take time to relax, is like being at a cottage every day.”
And like a cottage, there’s always something going on. Demers once dreamed of having horses — he now uses the property’s oval training track for cross-country skiing — but that ended when a stable blew down in a wind storm. More recently, he’s toyed with the notion of bee-keeping. “It’s a fascinating hobby to have and you get to have wildflowers growing, so you don’t have to mow. Plus,” he chuckles, “you get to wear something that’s a cross between Space Invaders and the Man from Glad!” The outfit might help defend his vegetable patch. “Everything the deer don’t eat, the rabbits do the next day. I don’t know if I’m growing a garden or feeding the wildlife.”
Does he miss city living and the Bridgehead down the street? “There are benefits to urban life,” he admits. “But until last summer, Savannah had never seen fireflies, so we got to witness that. The big joy is watching kids come here who otherwise don’t have a chance to run in a field or catch a firefly or a fish off the dock or drive a tractor. We grew up with that as kids.
“It’s interesting that friends are surprised when their kids, who are always on computers, will spend hours climbing trees and looking under rocks. For me, the appeal is that I can leave my office downtown and in half an hour, I can be on the dock, fishing, having a beer and checking emails. It’s hard to get balance in life,” he observes, “but I think I’ve found it.”