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CBC FILM COTTAGERS & INDIANS RAISES THE QUESTION: WHOSE WATER IS THIS?
By Suzanne Forcese
Two hours north of Toronto located on the Trent-Severn Waterway, Pigeon Lake is the scene of a simmering debate that began in 2007. On one side of the lake a community of property owners is sparring with the First Nations community of Curve Lake over First Nations’ land on the other side. The warm shallow lake that separates the two is perfect for summer water activities. It is also perfect for growing wild rice.
In its early days, the skirmish may have provided great material for a play – especially if it were written by someone born and raised in the Curve Lake First Nations community who looked through the Indigenous lens while simultaneously tickling the Native funny bone.
Four years ago when author, playwright, humorist, Drew Hayden Taylor was approached by Richard Rose( Artistic Director of Tarragon Theatre) to write a play about an ongoing ‘water rights’ feud in the Kawartha Lakes region his initial reaction was to reject the idea of a play about this real life drama.
However, after stepping back and taking an objective look at the issues involved, the play was written and up and running within a year, playing to packed mainly non-Indigenous and non-reactive crowds. The main protest was the insensitive and culturally inappropriate use of the word ‘Indian’.
Taylor is part Ojibwe and part Caucasian. “I plan to start my own nation. We will be called the Occasions,” Taylor once joked in a lecture. All humor aside, Taylor’s mission is to open awareness to Indigenous issues steeped in Canada’s history. One might call him a ‘special Occasion’.
WaterToday spoke with Drew Hayden Taylor about the comedy, Cottagers & Indians, that explores the cultural nuances existing on his own stomping grounds of Curve Lake First Nations, a peninsula surrounded by Buckhorn Lake and Upper Chemong Lake.
The subsequent CBC film set in neighboring Pigeon Lake, 10 miles away from Curve Lake First Nation, and accessible only by a 40-minute drive is at the core of our discussion.
Reincarnated as a CBC documentary, the comedy’s title rebirthed itself into a larger than life real time story. And it’s no laughing matter.
The tale of two perspectives has dredged up a melange of controversial topics that refuse to be submerged. Water rights, Indigenous rights, reconciliation, the environment, food sovereignty, privilege, governance, racism, trust, honesty, open communication – all drenched in visceral emotion.
Larry and Marilyn Wood’s home is on Pigeon Lake.
WaterToday also spoke with the Woods who are permanent residents along the 14 mile shore of Pigeon Lake. The Wood family has based their own traditions and values on the dreams of Larry’s father who bought the property in 1947.
“We built this place with our own hands. It is a labor of love,” Marilyn said. “We wanted to teach our children the lessons of building a good foundation step by step.”
Larry underscores the fact that Pigeon Lake is home. “The title of the documentary does not imply who we really are. ‘Cottagers’ suggests that we are seasonal people who are here for recreation. It implies privilege.”
The Woods’ connection to the land, the water, and family now threads through five generations. “But it’s not just us,” Larry is quick to point out, “It’s all of our neighbors. We all have a history here. We all want the same thing.”
What the residents and cottagers want is harmony. “We respect our First Nations neighbors and we want to work through this and find a solution that works for both sides.”
“When I first met DrewTaylor at the showing of the Cottagers & Indians play, during the Q & A afterwards, someone from the audience asked me if I had anything to say.
“I just want for all of us to get along, is what I said…it’s all I have ever wanted.”
The CBC Docs film Cottagers & Indians takes the audience to the centre of the fray, between the residents who have formed the group Save Pigeon Lake and local Indigenous man, James Whetung, who is seeding the water with Manoomin or wild rice.
“Michi Saagig Manoomin (Wild Rice) is a sacred plant found only in the Great Lakes and Boreal Forest regions of Turtle Island (North America). Michi Saagig have over 10,000 years of history with Manoomin in our traditional territory. This sacred plant has sustained the Michi Saagig since time immemorial and continues to be recognized and honoured as a significant food source.”
Chief Emily Whetung on behalf of Curve Lake Council
The Save Pigeon Lake Group has no objection to Curve Lake First Nations following their sacred traditions. “We do not object to them seeding wild rice. In fact, we have always enjoyed watching the rice come up every spring. It attracts birds and other wildlife. It is beautiful, and part of a healthy ecosystem.” Mrs. Wood told us in regard to the 200-acre area in the southern part of Pigeon Lake that was always there.
That 200 acres has now grown to 1800 acres, making it impossible for the residents to engage in any type of water activity.
“We aren’t against the rice,” Mrs. Wood continues, “I just don’t understand why it is necessary for someone to plant the rice for his gain. We have no problem with food sovereignty for the Curve Lake First Nations.”
WaterToday reached out to James Whetung and received answers to our questions via email.
Although Whetung has been referred to as ‘an activist’, ‘a leader’, even a ‘villain’ in various accounts, Whetung writes, “I am a hereditary guardian of my grandfather’s gathering, fishing, hunting and trapping area.”
It is that ‘area’ that is at the centre of confusion.
Several historical rice beds were flooded when the Trent-Severn Waterway was constructed (between 1879 and 1920). The construction also submerged a large portion of land, creating several new lakes, including Pigeon Lake.
The newly created lake, now known as Pigeon Lake, does not cover a historical rice bed.
“Where we are there used to be a potato farm,” Wood says. “Pigeon Lake now covers an area which included Pigeon River and agricultural land. Any rice beds would have been along the river and beneath Buckhorn and Chemong .”
“In everything I write,” Taylor told WT, “my objective is to educate, illuminate, and entertain.”
It would appear Cottagers & Indians, the documentary that grew out of some poetic licensure of the game ‘cowboys and Indians’ – “a game that we all played – even us Indigenous kids – has also created more division,” Taylor said.
“The Manoomin garden is a means of travel and a source of diverse food. This diversity includes my father’s clan, Black Duck. We are part of the garden.”
James Whetung (blackduckwildrice.com)
Not unlike Taylor, Whetung, is involved in educating about the traditional food of the Nishnaabe people. Black Duck Wild Rice, located in Curve Lake First Nation, is a social enterprise involved with restoring Indigenous food sovereignty for their community and within their traditional territory. In this video by FLEdGE, Laurier University, Whetung provides us with insights to his mission in reclaiming Rice Lake.
“We run canoe eco-tours into the Manoomin ecosystem with experiential, hands-on teachings about the history and traditional processing of Manoomin,” Whetung told WaterToday. “We also give a tour of our community based mechanical processing plant. We have hundreds of people from all backgrounds participate every year. We believe that we are making an impact with this work.”
As far as his role in the CBC film, Whetung states: “The story is not about James Whetung and a few waterfront property owners. The narrative of Cottagers & Indians is a creation of Drew Hayden Taylor – it is not my story. My story is about the Canadian Federal Government continuing to perpetrate genocide against Indigenous people by failing to protect us and our sacred food.”
As far as the stain on Canada’s history is concerned, Larry Wood says, “The past is the past. We are here to correct the past. Our forefathers were wrong. We are not our forefathers. But it takes two sides to work this out. We are on this earth together and we should work it out together.”
What the Woods and their neighbors are suggesting is a designated area for wild rice seeding and a boundary that would allow property owners some space for water activities. “All we want is compromise.”
Whetung interprets the suggestion differently. He writes, “This is not the time to compromise. We will talk compromise once Manoomin is protected from destruction. If we stop planting now, without protection for Manoomin, it would be destroyed, again, like it was 150 years ago.”
There is also much frustration on both sides regarding the position of Parks Canada.
Woods says there are negotiations ongoing, but the Pigeon Lake residents are not part of the process “and that is frustrating. We do however remain hopeful that the matter can be resolved.”
Whetung is not as optimistic. “The destruction of Manoomin and the intimidation of Manoomin protectors and caretakers is White Supremacy in that it impedes the ability of Indigenous people to exercise our internationally recognized rights,” he writes in the email. “Through Parks Canada’s failure to protect Manoomin, the Federal Government of Canada is violating its international obligations and displaying its institutional racism.”
WaterToday reached out to Parks Canada for a statement. PC was unable to provide us with information in time for publication.
Can we bridge these troubled waters? WaterToday asks “What does reconciliation mean to you?
Taylor: “That’s a difficult question. It is going to mean something different to everyone. Until the government takes a firm stance it is just one of those things that is in a gray area.”
Whetung: “Reconciliation means giving (taking) back the land, waters, and natural resources.”
The Woods: “We have to start out with forgiveness. All parties involved have to make an effort to work together. We want solutions.”
View the CBC Doc POV Cottagers & Indians
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