Cottagers, Indians and an evasive species


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in December 2015

A little over 50 kilometres north of Peterborough, Ont., a tempest is brewing involving people who have spent huge amounts of money to buy or build cottages on the shores of Pigeon Lake in the last couple of decades, and an Indigenous form of grain harvested by First Nations people for thousands of years.

It’s a battle of aesthetics and culture, property values and subsistence, of Muskoka chairs and an Indigenous pilaf. At the heart of this issue is a fundamentally differing perspective on what is important on a cultural level.

The offender in this case, Zizania (in latin), or manomin (in Ojibway), or wild rice (to the rest of the world). Actually, it’s a grain rather than rice, and it has since time immemorial been a staple of many First Nation diets.

Most Indigenous gatherings would not be complete without one to three wild rice casseroles at the center of the potluck table. The offended is a confederation of cottagers located on this Kawartha Lake who feel that the presence of this plant somehow infringes upon their right to enjoy the beauty of the Canadian wilderness and use their seadoos.

Valuable shorelines are being assaulted and defamed by the plant’s tall stocks rising above the water’s edge, giving it the appearance of a marsh. Evidently, marshes and swamps are anathema to those who weekend in the area. It is also alleged the vegetation could be considered a water hazard, limiting accessibility for their boats.

If there is a villain, it’s James Whetung from the Curve Lake First Nation, just a short drive away from the desecrated shorelines. For the past several years, he has been accused of seeding the lakes with wild rice and then harvesting the crop, as do other Native people from other nearby Aboriginal communities.

Why? Why do Italians grow grapes and the French make cheese? Maybe it’s genetically programmed. Are cottagers not following an ancient urge to come upon land they consider is not being used properly, and occupy it?

At its core, this story is filled with irony. Fond of shallow clear water found near the shore, it’s been theorized that the proliferation of the rice beds is not just Mr. Whetung’s fault. I was told that wild rice kernels can lie dormant for long periods of time until conditions are ripe for growth… growth encouraged by an invasive species introduced into the Ontario waterways from southern Russia called zebra mussels.

They help filter the water and improve conditions for this Indigenous plant to grow. It should also be pointed out all this is happening on a lake named after another invasive species of bird introduced to the Americas in the late 1660s.

Things came to a head when cottagers took matters into their own hands and persuaded the Trent Severn Waterway to dredge up the offending plants along their shore. This action was short lived because contractually, the TSW is obligated to consult with local First Nations regarding such activity. It seems the cottagers own the land but not the water. To date, the dredging has been stopped and both communities are discussing how to deal with the matter.

All this difficulty over 10 to 15 per cent of a lake covering over 57 square kilometres. Such is the tragedy of First World problems.

In my early teens, I remember witnessing these dredging machines cross back and forth across Chemong and Buckhorn Lake, scooping up huge piles of something called Eurasian Milfoil.

Introduced to Canada sometime in the late 19th century, this invasive species ravaged the southern and central Ontario water systems in the late 60s and 70s, clogging the waterways. The dredging was not particularly successful.

Oddly enough, the Ministry of Natural Resources encourages the cultivation of wild rice. Evidently it helps cleanse the water. Fish and aquatic animal populations love it, and of course it’s an excellent nutritious and natural food source.

Milfoil on the other hand only made quasi-adequate garden fill, making the village smell fishy for several summers.

Understandably, this issue has become a cause celebre for Indigenous activists, calling the actions of the non-Natives a form of ‘cottage colonization.’ Susan Blight, a Toronto Anishnawbe activist and artist, was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying “There’s a philosophical difference about recreational enjoyment of the lake and the lake as a spiritual being, as sustenance, as nationhood and governance.”

Part of the disagreement is over the wording in the Treaty that allows Mr. Whetung, who has a provincial license giving him the right to plant and harvest the wild rice. He is allowed to gather it to provide for himself, his family, and community.

Mr. Whetung has been known to sell the wild rice at a farmers’ market to non-Natives, which some believe violates the Treaty. However, this year he was happy to say, he managed to financially rise just above the poverty line. Evidently, for Native businessmen, there is no fortune to be made in harvesting wild rice. It seems likely he will not be using his meagre profits to buy a cottage.

Many of the Pigeon Lake residents swear this has nothing to do with racism, and resent the fact the disagreement has evolved into a bigger issue. It’s a matter strictly of boat safety and property values and I believe them.

If it were Ethiopians or Laotians, I am sure the reaction would be the same. And to tell you the truth, some of my best friends have been cottagers. They’re an interesting people with fascinating ways and have been maligned far too long. I’ve even been known to visit and make anthropological forays to these strange and mysterious sites. That’s why I know what a Muskoka chair is.

But decades ago in my more innocent youth, people from my community used to spend the day out on the lake, enjoying the sun, the water and the landscape. And when we got hungry, we would pull over to a nearby shore and have lunch, maybe a fish fry, and soak up the essence of what the Kawartha lakes offered us.

Alas, those days are long gone, far in the past with the vast roaming herds of buffalo. Every bit of shoreline now has a cottage on it.

Talk about your evasive species…