How a conflict over wild ricing on Pigeon Lake is drawing attention to Indigenous rights and traditional foods.
Ennismore, Ontario – Owners of cottages near Canada’s Pigeon Lake have a bone to pick with James Whetung. For years, Whetung has been seeding the lake with wild rice. He harvests the crop and then sells packaged products through his company, Black Duck Wild Rice. But some cottage owners aren’t happy. Pigeon Lake is one of the 250 lakes and waterways in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario, Canada. Located two hours east of Toronto, it is a popular destination for summer getaways, fishing, hiking, recreational boating, and building cottages. Since 2007, a group of residents of Pigeon Lake have been fighting Whetung’s seeding of wild rice, claiming their shorelines are filled with the marshy plant that makes boating difficult. They’ve protested, held community meetings, contacted politicians, petitioned, and formed a group called Save Pigeon Lake. Whetung, however, insists that his interests are not entrepreneurial and that his aboriginal treaty rights allow him to harvest the rice. As a member of Curve Lake First Nation, he says it is part of a wider effort to revive the local indigenous culture, which was undermined by colonisation. “Our people have been using the rice for thousands of years,” says Whetung. “The rice was decimated by the government, by other groups. Whenever they are building cottages or homes along the shore, they would dredge out the shoreline, [destroying the] rice.” But underlying tensions exploded into a heated dispute last August, when Parks Canada, a Canadian government agency that manages national parks, lands, and waters, gave Pigeon Lake residents permits to cut down some of the wild rice beds. Now, the local First Nations claim their inherent treaty rights have been violated.
At first, cottage owners say they were baffled by the changes on Pigeon Lake. “We had noticed that there was a growth of wild rice,” says Larry Wood, a Pigeon Lake resident. “But we couldn’t understand what was causing it.” Wood has lived on the lake since his father first bought the waterfront land in 1947. Multiple generations of his family have settled here since, building homes along the shoreline. “The idea was that their families were each going to have a place here,” says Wood’s wife, Marilyn. “Larry’s sister lives two doors down, and his nephew lives where his dad used to be.” Their living room is adorned with family photographs, showcasing fishing trips, grandchildren swimming, and other fond memories. The Woods speak about the surrounding land and water as if it were kin, including the little rice bed sprouting in the lake. “That rice bed has always come up in the spring,” says Marilyn. “We can almost tell you the day.” “It’s been there ever since I was personally here,” adds her husband. “But its footprint didn’t start to expand until this commercial harvesting.” Starting in 2007, as the lake grew thicker with long, grassy beds, Pigeon Lake cottage owners became increasingly alarmed. Residents claim the plant is a nuisance, getting tangled in boat engines and affecting waterway navigation. “It got to the point where people could not get out in their boats to enjoy the water,” says Larry. “They couldn’t use their beaches because of the rice growing so closely to the shoreline.” One morning, Wood awoke to the roar of an engine. Outside, he spotted a boating vessel with a large propeller on the back. “I thought it was an airplane taking off,” he says. “But that was [Whetung] harvesting with an airboat with a scoop on the front.” They soon learned about Whetung’s mission to seed the lake with wild rice, and that he was selling his product commercially. The residents claim that their shorelines are now filled with the plant. “It’s a major concern to anyone who uses the lake,” Larry says. He insists that he respects First Nations people’s right to harvest existing rice beds, but says he and other residents object to the noise from Whetung’s airboat and his active planting of the crop, which now reportedly covers an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the lake’s 57 square kilometres. “The Williams Treaty gave the First Nations the right to hunt, fish, and gather food for social and ceremonial purposes,” says Larry. “We have absolutely no problem with that. “Our issue is the deliberate seeding of the lake where rice never existed.” “The total lack of respect for all the people around here is the most upsetting [thing],” adds Marilyn, with tears in her eyes. “It’s like we don’t count. This has become his farm. Our kids grew up playing here and swimming. All of us are affected by what he’s doing.” Moreover, the Woods and other cottage owners oppose Whetung’s commercial interests in the wild rice. “He may give or sell some of his rice to his fellow First Nations people,” says Larry. “But he isn’t doing it for any other reason than to have a business. He sells it to wineries and on the market to Peterborough.” “No one should have the right to plant a crop in the waterways for his own personal gain.” The Woods and other cottage owners took action, forming the Save Pigeon Lake group. After several years of lobbying various government bodies to stop the rice farming, Wood and his neighbours were issued a permit in July 2015 by Parks Canada, which oversees the Trent-Severn Waterway. Pigeon Lake is part of this 386km inland canal system. The permit allowed limited removal of “aquatic vegetation” from Pigeon Lake. According to Parks Canada, it was intended to give cottage owners “the ability to safely navigate from the shoreline to the main channel in Pigeon Lake”. Subsequently, a private company was hired to remove the rice beds from shoreline areas. But during this process, a critical step was skipped: No one consulted the local First Nations communities.