Ruckus over rice: A thorny issue that has Indigenous activists facing off with local cottagers and residents

There are two sides to every story, including the planting of wild rice on a lake in Ontario’s cottage country

The CBC Docs POV film Cottagers & Indians takes us to the centre of a conflict between cottagers living on Ontario's Pigeon Lake and local Indigenous activists who are seeding the water with manoomin or wild rice. 

Cottagers & Indians: Trailer

3 years ago
Duration 0:59
A fight is underway in cottage country. Drew Hayden Taylor follows the story of one First Nations man, who has pitted himself against the cottage owners of a lake in Ontario. He is planting wild rice, a traditional food of the First Nations, and an agricultural practice that nearly went extinct. But the cottagers aren't all happy with it.

Located on the Trent–Severn Waterway around two hours north of Toronto, Pigeon Lake is a warm, shallow body of water that's perfect for growing rice and cottaging. Unfortunately, the two things don't seem to be compatible.

Here are some of the arguments posed by the groups on either side of the debate.

Reasons to grow wild rice

Health of Indigenous people

Activists say that wild rice is a traditional food that has kept Indigenous people healthy for generations. James Whetung, featured in the documentary, adds that wild rice is an excellent addition to a diet designed to manage diabetes — a disorder that's rampant in his nearby community, Curve Lake First Nation.

Indigenous sovereignty

Pigeon Lake is adjacent to First Nations' land. Activists argue that there is no reason that the predominantly white homeowners and cottagers on the lake should get to decide how the water is used. Why shouldn't they be the ones to decide? 

Cleaner water, more biodiversity

According to non-profit Plenty Canada, wild rice filters water, and provides food and nesting material for animals such as loons and muskrats. So the question arises: what is a "good" lake? Rice planters argue that a lake full of life is better than a crystal clear, sterile lake.

Correcting a historical injustice

According to Cottagers & Indians, several historical rice beds were flooded when the Trent–Severn Waterway was constructed. Rice planters say that the rice can't grow in water deeper than six to eight feet. The waterway's construction also submerged a large portion of land, creating several new lakes, including Pigeon Lake. This provides an opportunity to replant the traditional rice beds that were destroyed without consultation.

Rice beds are beautiful gardens, say activists

In Cottagers & Indians, rice planter Michelle Fraser says she sees "planting a garden" of wild rice in the water near cottages and homes as an act of kindness. 

Reasons not to grow wild rice

Recreational activities on the lake

Wild rice beds make the lake unsuitable for a wide range of recreational activities, from swimming to boating, as the long plants create a tangle that's hard to navigate. They're also annuals that create unsightly biomass when they die, according to cottagers and homeowners who dig dead rice stalks out of their boat slips.

Impacts of monoculture

The cottagers and homeowners acknowledge that rice is part of a healthy ecosystem, but they're skeptical about seeding the entire lake with rice. They say that very little research has been done on the artificial creation of rice monoculture, and liken it to the difference between a forest and a field planted with nothing but pine trees.

Illegal farming

The cottagers and homeowners concede that the activists have the right to harvest natural rice beds but question whether they have the right to engage in unlimited seeding, especially off the ends of their docks. Some homeowners see the submerged land — flooded over to create Pigeon Lake — as their property, which is being seeded without their consent.

Public access to the waterway

In the documentary, cottagers argue that the lakes of the Trent–Severn Waterway are public and that planting rice limits access to it. They say they want clarity from the government on whether seeding public water is legal. They add they support areas designated exclusively for wild rice farming and maintaining others for public use.

Family traditions

Many homeowners and cottagers on Pigeon Lake have inherited the land from family members and have spent generations enjoying the lake, as it was engineered over a century ago. They resent the idea that someone would unilaterally decide to change the look, feel and experience of the water.

Watch Cottagers & Indians.

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