CBC Docs POV·Point of View

'Cottagers & Indians': The battle over water rights near my reserve

Whether it’s the Oka Crisis or pipeline disputes out West, disagreements over land and water frequently become arguments and can even end in violence
Drew Hayden Taylor (Paul Kemp Productions)

It was four years ago that I first put pen to paper to write my play Cottagers and Indians, which has now been adapted into a new documentary of the same name airing on CBC Docs POV. Both explore the heated fight occurring off the shallow shores of my reserve, Curve Lake First Nation. 

Growing up in Ontario's Kawartha Lakes region, I had an inherent love of the land and an appreciation of the lakes that surrounded it. I had heard of wild rice — or manoomin, as we call it — and had eaten quite a bit of it. But I had not seen it grow in its natural environment, even though this area of the province has been described, ironically enough, as the breadbasket of Anishinaabe manoomin. 

Because of several different factors, most notably boat traffic, log booms churning up the water, pollution and the introduction of invasive species (both plants and animals), manoomin almost went extinct around my community. That's when James Whetung, an Indigenous man from my reserve, sprang into action. Seeing the reintroduction of manoomin as both a matter of food sovereignty and cultural health, he has now spent a good chunk of his life cultivating it in the area's shallow and warm lakes.   

Cottagers & Indians: Planting Rice

2 years ago
Duration 0:45
James Whetung is taking it upon himself to replant wild rice on this lake in cottage country. Once a part of the First Nations' agricultural practices, the planting of wild rice was nearly extinct.

Unfortunately, manoomin, when grown, sprouts a good two feet out of the water. This limits boating, fishing and swimming, and some full-time residents and cottagers claim it brings down property values. Whetung and his supporters feel that's a small price to pay for the reestablishment of a traditional mainstay and way of life. The result of these differing perspectives has been a decades-long disagreement, resulting in a growing sense of acrimony between both parties. 

Who has the final say over these water rights? That is the question my play asked. Since I wrote it, Cottagers and Indians has packed theatres across Canada. Next season (if COVID-19 doesn't kill the theatre's place in our world forever), it will hit the stages of several more Canadian cities. 

Whether it's the Oka Crisis or pipeline disputes out West, trying to reach an understanding about the importance of land and water has frequently ended in arguments and even violence.- Drew Hayden Taylor

To be clear, the play is an unapologetic comedy that tries to explore, with humour, how negotiations over land and water rights are transpiring between First Nations and settler Canadians on our lakes. In it, I tried to be fair and objective. From the feedback I have received, I think I hit the mark.

Practically since the time of contact, there have been disagreements between the Indigenous people who have canoed these waters for thousands of years and those whose ancestors came from across the Atlantic Ocean. Whether it's the Oka Crisis or pipeline disputes out West, trying to reach an understanding about the importance of land and water has frequently ended in arguments and even violence. 

It's a complex world out there. It's been said that in any war (or conflict), the first casualty is the truth. As an Indigenous man, well versed in both societies, I wanted to explore these struggles between the two worlds. But in this post-Oka, post Ipperwash, post–Gustafsen Lake era, the two different perceptions of how to live in unison with the land are still creating difficulties. There has even been debate on the way I use the word "Indian" in the title of my play, a term many older Indigenous people like myself feel comfortable using.

In the context of the play, it was an ironic reference to the age-old children's game Cowboys and Indians, which everyone played, including Indigenous youth. I thought it was an humorous comment on how little has changed, except how people use lawyers and police instead of guns and arrows. 

What I thought was particularly amusing others did not. During the run of the play, in several theatres, the box office would get complaints about the usage of the term "Indian." They said that it was outdated and potentially racist, and both the box office and the producing theatre should be ashamed of themselves. The calls, I was told, were always from non-Native people. 

Indigenous people knew the joke I was making. 

Watch Cottagers & Indians.

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