AS IT HAPPENS

Wild rice harvesting causes uproar on Pigeon Lake, Ontario

A First Nation wild rice grower says he's just exercising his treaty rights, but local property owners says all the seeds he has planted have turned the lake into a marsh, and it is ruining the community for everyone else.
Larry Wood's family has owned property on Pigeon Lake for 70 years. He says this spot was open water until a few years ago. (Phillip Lee-Shanok/CBC)
Listen6:31

Property owners on a lake in Ontario's Kawartha region are fed up with a wild rice grower from a nearby First Nations community that they say is turning Pigeon Lake into a marsh full of rice plants.

Larry Wood, whose family has live on the lake north of Peterborough for more than 70 years, says he started to notice the rice beds popping up all over the lake about six years ago. 

"It is a public waterways, for the use of all. What he has done by seeding and creating new rice beds is take away the use of the waterways from all walks of life who have enjoyed the waterways in the past," Wood tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"He" is James Whetung, an avid wild rice grower from nearby Curve Lake First Nation. And he's defiantly unrepentant.

Here is the August 24th interview with Whetung:

First Nation wild rice harvester James Whetung's large-scale rice-growing operation on Pigeon Lake north of Peterborough has local property-owners upset, complaining that he's ruining the lake for everyone else 6:32

When asked about the property owners who are complaining, Whetung tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann "they're full of shit, and they're prejudiced honkies." 

​Whetung says his people have gathered wild rice, called manomin in Anishinawbe culture, long before cottagers came to the area. It used to be abundant on the lakes and rivers, he says, but recreational boating - and the use of herbicides to clear "weeds" from the waterways - killed most of it off. Whetung says he's just trying to return the rice beds to their historic state. 

"We have to eat. And it's especially important today because the health of our people is suffering," he says. "So many people are suffering from diabetes and other diseases ... because we don't have access to our traditional foods."

James Whetung is harvesting wild rice from Pigeon Lake, north of Peterborough, Ontario. (Courtesy: bythebushel.ca)

Wood says he respects First Nations people's right to harvest existing rice beds. But he thinks it's unfair that Whetung is actively planting more. "[The lake] looks like a beautiful sea of grass," he says, but it's so thick in places that parts of the lake are now unpassable. "Down the lake, it's a real concern because it has grown shore to shore."

Wood says Whetung's for-profit harvesting operation is benefiting one person to the detriment of everyone else.

"We're now in the 21st century, and we should be looking at ways we can all get along." 

Whetung admits that he does sell the rice through his business, called Black Duck Wild Rice. But his treaty rights allow him to harvest it, and he says he's hardly getting rich. 

"Last year I reached the poverty line," he says. 

He says he has planted thousands of pounds of rice over the past 30 years, and sold thousands of pounds more to other First Nations rice growers eager to seed their own lakes and rivers. 

"I'm not trying to resolve [this dispute]. I'm trying to help our people with their health and well-being, and retain our culture. That's what I'm trying to do," Whetung says. 

Last week, a group of property owners who call themselves Save Pigeon Lake applied for and received a permit to remove "aquatic weeds" along the lakeshore.

"When I heard [about the harvesting], I kind of melted down. It was very upsetting for me," Whetung says. 

The dredging was stopped after local First Nations communities complained that they should have been consulted since the operation impacted their treaty harvesting rights. 

Government officials are meeting with First Nations groups on Friday in hopes of finding a compromise.