Troubled waters: Disputes over lakes, waterfronts have roared between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians

From screaming matches to business opportunities, the outcome of negotiations have varied greatly.

In the CBC Docs POV film Cottagers & Indians, based on a play by the same name, we travel to the home of Indigenous author and host Drew Hayden Taylor in Ontario's cottage country, the setting of a heated dispute over wild rice and water rights. 

On the one side is James Whetung, a member of Curve Lake First Nation who has been reclaiming what he sees as his treaty-given right to seed the nearby shallow Pigeon Lake and others with wild rice (manoomin, the "good seed" in Ojibway). His goal is to plant the traditional food everywhere, and provide opportunities for his people to harvest and eat it. Whetung sees wild rice as a nutritious option that can help combat the diabetes, obesity and other health problems he sees in his community and across Indigenous communities in Canada. 

On the other side of this dispute are thousands of year-round residents and cottagers, many whose families have been living on these lakes for decades, who view Whetung's actions as not only inconsiderate but destructive. The wild rice has made navigating the waters difficult, clogged recreational marine vehicles and made swimming almost impossible from July through September. Tensions have escalated, resulting in screaming matches at town halls and threats of violence.

Cottagers and Indians: Renegade

3 years ago
Duration 1:06
In one confrontation, the two men at the forefront of the fight revolving the planting of wild rice on the lake have a heated argument regarding the methods being employed and how far the planting has already gone.

So, whose lakes are these? Who gets to decide how they are used and enjoyed? Is there a middle ground? 

This is not only time that lake and waterfront land rights have had to be negotiated. 

Shoal Lake

A large portion of Shoal Lake 40, an Ojibway First Nation straddling the border between Ontario and Manitoba, wasn't always cut off from the mainland. But when the City of Winnipeg needed access to a clean source of drinking water in the early 1900s, the First Nation's ancestral land was expropriated. The city dug a waterway in Shoal Lake as part of a 155-kilometre-long aqueduct project, isolating much of the community on an island. 

No pipe was built to return water from the treatment plant to the reserve. and the community has been under a boil-water advisory for decades. Requiring bottled water to live, members first relied on canoes and then on an aging ferry to get to the mainland. In winter, they made crossings on foot or by snowmobile over ice weakened by the rapid flow of the channel. Several people died.

In the early 1980s, the First Nation hatched a plan to zone part of their island for cottage development — a way to create an ongoing tax base for the reserve and provide much-needed revenue for things like a water treatment plant or road to the Trans-Canada highway. 

The city intervened to stop the project in order to keep Winnipeg's drinking water safe. In exchange, they agreed to help fund other development projects along with the provincial and federal government. Still, progress would prove to be slow, and community members and activists became increasingly vocal. 

It wasn't until 2019 that two bridges and a gravel road, called Freedom Road, were completed to connect the First Nation to the mainland. The community hopes to have a water treatment facility by December 2020.

Sauble Beach

Janice Jackson, the mayor of South Bruce Peninsula (Paul Kemp Productions)

Located at the southern end of the Bruce Peninsula on Ontario's Lake Huron, Sauble Beach is one of Canada's most popular destinations, hosting around 1.5 million visitors every summer. 

Citing a 1854 treaty, the Saugeen First Nation now wants to take control of the beach and the highly lucrative cottage industry located in the two-kilometre zone outlined in the original agreement. Meanwhile, the mayor of South Bruce Peninsula claims the town legally purchased the beachfront land in an auction.

In Cottagers & Indians, Chief Lester Anoquot confirms the First Nation has no desire to return the area to a natural state. They want to continue business (and cottage life) as usual, under new administration, for the good of their people. However, like the members of Curve Lake First Nation, they are dealing with a byzantine web of colonial policy, and historical confusion over land rights and boundaries. 

The non-Indigenous community claims that since they have been there for decades, they also have moral claim to the land they now live and play on. The First Nation claims they are the victims of historical mismanagement by the government.

Crooked Lake

Crooked Lake boasts some of the best lakefront cottage land in Saskatchewan. Located in the Qu'Appelle Valley, it has views of stunning, hilly landscapes, rare in the otherwise flat province. Traditionally, the Zagime Anishinabek has rented the land to cottagers for low rates — in many cases for under $500 a year.

But Chief Lynn Acoose has greater ambitions for her reserve than modest federal transfers can pay for and sees the value of the cottages. In 2009, the First Nation hired an appraisal company to recommend new rates based on fair market value. As a result, people who were paying as little as $460 a year in rent were now assessed at over $4,500 a year. While rates were still a comparable amount to the annual leases paid by many Canadian cottagers, they were massive compared to what the cottagers had been paying.

The cottagers sought relief from the courts, filing a class-action lawsuit that claimed the increases were unfairly steep. Chief Acoose also faced an electoral challenge from her own brother, Lyle Acoose, who ran on a platform of evicting all of the renters entirely and allowing members of the First Nation to live on the lakefront. Her campaign of cooperation won by a large margin, but the rumblings continued.

After 31 evictions due to nonpayment, and the Federal Court of Appeal ultimately siding with the First Nation, Zagime is now beginning an effort to rebuild bridges with the cottagers.

Osoyoos Lake

Chief Louie rides through B.C.’s Okanagan Valley (Paul Kemp Productions)

B.C.'s Okanagan Valley is home to what may be the most financially prosperous reserve in Canada: the Osoyoos Indian Band. 

The reserve is a four-hour drive from Vancouver and situated on Osoyoos Lake, which is said to be the warmest lake in the country. The waterfront property, owned by an Indigenous member of the band, was leased to cottagers — with the band's input and consent. The band has since attracted many wealthy cottagers and turned their home into an empire. They've built cottages, condos, golf courses, an internationally renowned private F1 race track, high-end restaurants and their own award-winning winery.

Through developing the land on their own terms, the band has created more job openings than its band members can fill, and contributes massive amounts to the Okanagan's economy. Some critics claim it is just geographic good luck that the band has been able to attract so many cottagers and so much prosperity, but Chief Louie is quick to point out that Indigenous people have a history of being incredibly hard workers. He believes that success is part of his heritage and culture.

Watch Cottagers & Indians.

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