Cottage culture 'erases Indigenous communities from the landscape'

A legal battle in Saskatchewan is just one example of more widespread tensions between First Nations communities and the non-Indigenous cottagers who lease their land.
Grant Singer signed a $757-a-year lease in 2007, for an undeveloped lakefront lot. In 2009, he was informed the rent was increasing to $4,500 a year. (Geoff Leo/CBC)
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Canada's love of cottage country is built on a culture that renders Indigenous people invisible, according to one academic.

"There is a language around cottage country that imagines [it] as this empty, pristine landscape that has been set aside for the unique use of vacationers from the city," says Peter Stevens, a professor of history and liberal studies at Humber College in Toronto.

"What that ignores is the fact that it was never empty, it was never a pristine place, it's the homeland of various different Indigenous peoples, and that it's often been completely left out of the story."

One example of cottage country is Crooked Lake — a picturesque spot two hours east of Regina, nestled in the Qu'Appelle Valley. It's long been a place where people lease land to build cottages, creating a winter refuge or summer getaway in Saskatchewan.

But it has recently become the site of a legal battle between the people who built those cottages, and the Indigenous community that owns the land beneath them.

The land value has increased significantly over the years, and now the Sakimay First Nation is seeking rent increases of up to 700 per cent to reflect that fact.

It's a hard adjustment for people to make, but ultimately it's our land.- Chief Lynn Acoose of the Sakimay First Nation

Many of those leases were signed decades ago, and are now coming to an end, en masse.

Grant Singer signed a $757-a-year lease in 2007, for an undeveloped lakefront lot. In 2009, he was informed the rent was increasing to $4,500 a year.

Walking away from the lease would mean losing the $45,000 he has invested in building the property.

More than 300 cottagers on the lake received rent increases at the same time, and have mounted a series of legal challenges to protect their investments.

Chief Lynn Acoose of the Sakimay First Nation defended the increases, saying they were based on appraisals of the land, and are in line with market value.

"As someone who lives at Sakimay First Nation," she told the CBC, "And does not enjoy the use and benefit of our lakefront lands — from that perspective I felt it's fair."

"It's a hard adjustment for people to make, but ultimately it's our land."

Sakimay First Nations Chief Lynn Acoose says that the rent increases were based on market value. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Hiding from history

The conflict has raised questions about the larger issues of land claims in Canada.

"We spent a lot of time moving native populations out of the way to build national parks," says Stevens.

"The Group of Seven is upheld as this national school of art and they celebrated cottaging areas like Algonquin Park... [and] turned them into national landscapes."

"But what's missing from their paintings are any indication of the Native people who were living there at the time."

Stevens is currently writing a book on the history of family cottaging in Ontario, and says that non-Indigenous people often lose sight of the history behind their weekend getaways.

"You've got First Nations people who've been removed from the land and pushed on to reservations to begin with," he says, "And then they have to turn around and lease out their small reservation land to the white descendants of the people who colonized them in the first place."

Listen to the full piece at the top of this page, which includes a conversation with playwright Drew Hayden Taylor about his work on the tensions between First Nations communities and their visiting neighbours.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and Geoff Turner.