Canada’s wild rice wars

How a conflict over wild ricing on Pigeon Lake is drawing attention to Indigenous rights and traditional foods.

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The wild rice at Pigeon Lake [Photo courtesy of Larry Wood]

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.

Troubled waters

The Wood family at the lake [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 
The Wood family at the lake [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 

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. 

Marilyn and Larry Wood. Larry has lived on the lake since his father first bought waterfront land in 1947 [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 
Marilyn and Larry Wood. Larry has lived on the lake since his father first bought waterfront land in 1947 [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 

Wild rice warrior

“We’ve been using [wild rice] for thousands of years,” says James Whetung. “It helped us with our food security and sovereignty. For the last 150 years, it’s been under attack.”

Standing in his workshop, Whetung explains his passion for wild rice. It’s a chilly morning, and his breath hangs in the wintery air as he shares a childhood story.

“One of my first memories of wild rice is my uncle bringing it [home],” Whetung says. “I remember us running and playing on top of the wild rice when it was on the wooden floor, and everyone being very excited about it.”

Whetung is a member of Curve Lake First Nation, an Ojibway community that is part of the Anishinaabe Nation. The Anishinaabe Nation’s word for wild rice is manomin, meaning ‘gift from the creator’. It is a wild grass that grows annually from seed and produces a valuable grain that is low in fat but high in protein, fibre, B vitamins and minerals. For thousands of years, it has been a staple food for indigenous communities across North America, including the Anishinaabe peoples living in this territory.

'Our people have been using the rice for thousands of years,' says Whetung [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 
‘Our people have been using the rice for thousands of years,’ says Whetung [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 

“Wild rice has always been a really important being for Anishinabee people – as a food source and as a part of the economy,” explains Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an indigenous studies scholar at Trent and McGill universities and a member of Alderville First Nation. “In late August and early September, people would gather together at the rice beds and harvest it in canoes. We have traditional stories about ricing. We have ricing songs and dances as part of our system of governance. It’s a cornerstone of our way of life.”

“It used to be very abundant here. This was like the rice bowl of North America,” says Whetung. “Our rice totalled more than Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s rice. Rice Lake was 17 miles [23km] long, a mile wide – that’s how much rice was in that one lake.”

The nearby lake’s name originates from the extensive wild rice beds that once flourished in its waters in the early 1900s. But with colonisation and development, the crop became scarce. Growing up, Whetung recalls eating manomin “once in a while, if we were lucky”. He also recalls how, as a teenager, he would paddle with his uncle on the lakes to learn about the crop.

“I knew that our rice was in trouble,” says Whetung. “I have spoken to the elders about the places they went to gather wild rice, where they planted wild rice, and how their lives had been impacted by the decline of the rice beds.”

“The plants speak. Somehow, I heard their call for help.”

Motivated, Whetung says he is on a mission to bring back what was lost. 

'I have that fleet of canoes, and I take people out when they want to learn about wild rice,' says Whetung [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 
‘I have that fleet of canoes, and I take people out when they want to learn about wild rice,’ says Whetung [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 

“I wanted to start planting seeds all around Curve Lake community,” says Whetung. “So that people who don’t have access can just put their canoe in the lake right at the village and paddle into the rice.”

Ten years ago, Whetung began seeding and harvesting wild rice in the surrounding lakes. He sells packages of processed wild rice through his company, but insists that it isn’t a conventional business.

“My purpose is not to make money,” he says. “It’s to re-educate our people [on] how to gather, process and use the food in the plants.”

“I think I reached the poverty line last year,” he adds.

Whetung harvests the rice both through his treaty rights and as a provincially licensed harvester. However, he says, some cottage owners harass him and call the police whenever he tries to harvest the rice.

“They just come down to yell racial slurs and threaten us,” says Whetung. “[Saying that] if we don’t get out of there, they’re going to call the cops every five minutes until [they] drag us out of there.”

Nevertheless, Whetung says he aspires to restore not only the wild rice, but also access to a healthy food source for his people. 

“There’s not one family [in Curve Lake First Nation] that’s not affected by diabetes, who hasn’t had someone lose limbs, livers, kidneys, sight or even life to that disease,” he says. “I think it’s [because] we haven’t had access to our traditional foods, and wild rice is one of them. And you need to rehabilitate it so the health of our people will improve.”

Today, First Nations living on reserves have a rate of diabetes three to five times higher than that of other Canadians, according to Health Canada.

Calling this “community wild ricing”, Whetung takes indigenous and non-indigenous people onto the lake to learn about traditional Anishinaabe harvesting using a canoe and two cedar sticks. Gliding on the water, the front passenger carefully steers through the plants, while the other gently bends the long grass over the canoe, tapping the tops until the seeds fall into the hull.

“I have that fleet of canoes, and I take people out when they want to learn about wild rice,” says Whetung. “I’ll show them what it looks like in the fall [season]. How to gather, bring it back to the shore, and turn it into food.”

In the autumn, Curve Lake First Nation frequently hosts community ricing events, often led by Whetung and other Anishinaabe ricers, and is open to public participation. Last September, Whetung led several ricing trips with school groups, ranging in age from Trent University students to a pack of 40 kindergarteners. 

“Harvesting and producing wild rice is a beautiful process, full of hard work,” says Simpson, the indigenous studies scholar. “It’s full of relationships with the land, with the water, with community, with elders. It can be a really amazing community-building experience.”

Processed wild rice [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 
Processed wild rice [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera] 

180 years of manomin history

The roots of this conflict can be traced back at least 180 years, pre-dating the founding of the country now called Canada. Long before the wild rice or cottages lined Pigeon Lake, the Anishinaabe peoples lived off the land and thrived. 

However, the landscape quickly shifted with the arrival of settlers, fur traders, and a booming lumber industry. Trekking over land from York (now Toronto) to Lake Simcoe was slow, and at times, gruelling. As early as 1785, there was interest in building an inland water route from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron. 

In 1833, the British government authorised the creation of locks, dams, and a canal system, known today as the Trent-Severn Waterway. In the Kawarthas, locks were built at Bobcaygeon, Burleigh Falls, Lovesick Lake, Buckhorn and Fenelon Falls. The official opening took place on July 1907, but not everyone celebrated.

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“The Trent-Severn Waterway [led to] the flooding of our islands,” says Chief Phyllis Williams, elected leader of Curve Lake First Nation. “We had to negotiate a settlement [with Canada], along with Hiawatha First Nation and Scugog First Nation.”

Curve Lake, Hiawatha, and Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nations lost 4,860 hectares of island reserve lands due to flooding caused during The Trent-Severn Waterway construction in 1837, 1856 and 1880. In 2012, the Canadian government and the three First Nations negotiated a CAD$71m (US$51m) settlement to compensate for lands flooded during the construction.

But what about the rice? Rising water levels swallowed up the plant, which relies on shallow water to subsist. According to Chief Williams, the 2012 settlement did not include compensation for this drowned source of food.

“The Trent-Severn Waterway goes right by our territorial land,” Williams says. “So there’s an influx of boating. That traffic over time has deteriorated our rice and our livelihood, and impacted the fish habitat and all of the animal habitat that we have come to know over the years on our shoreline.”

“In this area, ricing has been really difficult over the past couple of hundred years,” says Simpson. “The Trent-Severn Waterway cut off the flow, and it fluctuates the water levels of the lakes.”

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The rice supply further dwindled in the 1870s when settlers released carp into the lakes. As an invasive species, the fish destroyed wetland vegetation, including the remaining rice beds sprouting in shallow waters. Combined with cottage development and recreational boating, these factors compromised the crop’s survival.

“There’s been a lot of actively attacking wild rice and modifying the natural waterfront so that people can have beaches and clear water,” says Simpson. “This has had devastating impacts on First Nations, because it’s such a staple, a cornerstone of our nation and our way of being.”

Part of a global movement

“We’re in a stage where we’re trying to recover from the damage,” Simpson explains. “When you’ve got this imposed poverty that Anishinaabe people have had to cope with for so many years, it’s difficult to find nutritious food. The production and consumption of wild rice is really important now.”

For many, the wild rice dispute in small-town Canada is part of a global movement for indigenous rights. And it is as much focused on revitalising traditional diets and food sources, as it is about the right to exist.

“Anishinaabe food systems are an important part of our economy,” says Simpson. “They’re an important part of being Anishinaabe. Engaging in our practices – in our songs and dances, being self-sufficient, raising our children inside of our intelligent systems – these are all things that make very strong, healthy, contributing Anishinaabe people.”

“The idea that’s being put forward by the United Nations is that people have a right to their food,” explains Harriet Kuhnlein, a professor emerita and founding director of the Centre of Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at Canada’s McGill University, who has worked with the UN, researchers and indigenous communities around the world on food security issues for 40 years.

“We’re talking about a human right here: to culture, to food and to health. And it’s all wrapped up there in our little community with wild rice.”

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For centuries, the traditional Anishinaabe lifestyle was active and included eating seasonal foods that were freshly foraged, fished or hunted within the local environment. 

“Two hundred years ago, we had wild rice, maple sugar, wild meat and fish, and small gardens,” Simpson says. “So we were living a very healthy lifestyle.”

When creating food systems, elders planned seven generations ahead – teaching each cohort that it was their responsibility to ensure the survival of the seventh. But this was disrupted by European settlement and the British colonial government’s attempt to forcibly assimilate indigenous peoples.

“My uncles used to get me to paddle around to these remnants of the great stems we used to have,” says Whetung. “They disappeared because … I think it was part of a genocide programme where they took away our traditions, took away our elders, took away our food.”

“The impacts of colonisation have been horrendous,” says Kuhnlein. “The foods and the traditional diets became either inaccessible, or in some cases, polluted. In other cases, people were discouraged from living their traditional lifestyle, which meant harvesting their traditional foods.”

“Every time they lose territory, they lose access to their food.”

Through her work with the UN, researchers, and indigenous communities, Kuhnlein concludes that “everybody has the same issues”.

“Obesity and diabetes are huge issues for aboriginal peoples across Canada, across the world,” Kuhnlein explains. “When they don’t have their traditional food and lifestyle … [and] because of their circumstances of poverty and environmental dispossession, they are driven to buying what they can with a limited income. And it turns out to be very bad food.”

“So when you look at it from that perspective: Yes, it is lifestyle, but I wouldn’t use the word choices. I would say lifestyle change that has been forced upon them.”

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As Whetung and others profess, revitalising wild rice and other traditional food staples offer a dose of medicine to their communities. But, Simpson says, wild rice offers more than just nutritional benefits.

“Participating with a group of Anishinaabe people in this process is another added benefit. There’s nothing more beautiful than being out on a lake in the fall, gently knocking the grains of wild rice into the canoe,” Simpson reflects.

“We look at it as a gift from our creator.”

Kuhnlein sympathises with the cottage owners’ plight, but has a message for the Save Pigeon Lake group. 

“I know the settlers have their human rights too,” she says. “But they should not be given the freedom to take away from indigenous peoples when they’re trying to revitalise something from their past. They should be helping them.”

“The health properties of the wild rice are more valuable than the recreational properties of boating on the lake.”

Moving forward together

James Whetung and his daughter, Daemin [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera]
James Whetung and his daughter, Daemin [Ryan Edwardson/Al Jazeera]

On August 18, 2015, two members of Alderville First Nation spotted something unusual on Pigeon Lake and called the Band Office.

“I got word that harvesting machines were taking all the rice in Pigeon Lake,” says Chief Williams. “We had no knowledge about Trent-Severn Waterway permitting such an action to take the rice and cut it down. That was quite emotional to us as a community.”

Many perceived this as yet another “attack” on indigenous sovereignty and the constitutionally protected right to access traditional foods. According to the First Nations’ leadership, Parks Canada violated their treaty rights.

“They were very wrong because of the law in this country,” says Chief Williams. “There is a duty to consult with First Nations. Trent-Severn Waterway failed to consult with this First Nation in order to approve that application of permit.”

After the local First Nations protested, Parks Canada cancelled the permit and publicly acknowledged their error. The cottage owners agreed to halt further plant removal.

“[The First Nations] were totally right in their request,” says Larry Wood. “They should have been consulted prior to the permits being issued.”

“Parks Canada has a legal duty to consult with First Nations in situations where the government has knowledge of, or believes there may be potential existence of aboriginal rights or title or is contemplating conduct that might adversely affect such rights or title,” says Jewel Cunningham, the director of Ontario Waterways for Parks Canada.

Talks between Parks Canada officials and the Williams Treaty First Nations leaders began in August 2015, and so far, have reportedly been “very positive”.

“To date, we have developed terms of reference for our consultation and the discussions have been very productive,” says Cunningham. “We hope to eventually establish some form of agreement related to the management and harvesting of wild rice in Pigeon Lake and for the entire Trent-Severn Waterway.”

Others see this as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between non-indigenous and indigenous communities. 

“I’m encouraged that talks are taking place,” says Wood. “I’m sure the First Nation people are no different from ourselves – they don’t want any animosity [with] the rest of Canada. In the long run, it’s going to build a stronger relationship, a harmonious relationship with our First Nations people.”

In terms of a resolution, Wood proposes that wild rice planting be limited to unpopulated waterways – a compromise, he says, “that can satisfy the needs of many”.

Simpson, however, sees the matter differently. In her view, there is no dispute to resolve.

“Legally, this issue was decided years ago,” says Simpson. “Anishinaabe people have the right to harvest wild rice. I think the conflict has been, in some ways, manufactured.”

Nonetheless, Simpson agrees that some positive things have come from the attention it has drawn to the issue.

“There are so many good things happening around wild rice in this community,” she says. “The conversations that are happening in this community as a result of this … I think the relationships have just been strengthened.”

Meanwhile, Whetung is focused on passing on his ricing knowledge to his daughter, Daemin, and educating locals about wild rice. 

“To put the rice back in Rice Lake – which is my vision – it will require a lot of communities,” says Whetung. “The three indigenous communities in this area and the settlers, too. It will require everyone’s cooperation and consensus to make that happen. That’s what I want to do.”

Source: Al Jazeera