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“Cottagers and Indians”: Property vs. Life | Op-Ed

Members of Curve Lake First Nation of Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes have been planting wild rice on the property of the cottagers who spend their summers in the region. The dispute between the two groups has spanned decades and resulted in growing resentment between the groups.

Wild rice grows naturally in this environment, but it is endangered due to boat traffic, pollution, and invasive species.

  • Local Indigenous activists have decided to reintroduce the rice to the lakes of the region for the health of the ecosystem and as a form of food sovereignty: the right to sustainably produce food for themselves.

Playwright Drew Hayden Taylor explores the dispute between the two groups in his play, Cottagers and Indians, which CBC Docs POV has recently adapted into a documentary.

In Short: A false equivalency is created by the media, comparing the struggles of Indigenous people and the inconveniences of settler-Canadians.

  • On one side is a people without a source of healthy food, or many ways to secure their culture for future generations. On the other, is the enjoyment of a lake by seasonal cottagers.
  • The media response to the dispute has been flippant to the lives of the First Nation and is more interested in protecting the property of the cottagers.

Human life is more important than property.

“Whether it’s the Oka Crisis or pipeline disputes out West, trying to reach an understanding about the importance of land and water has frequently ended in arguments and even violence.”

Drew Hayden Taylor

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What Is At Stake:

For the Indigenous people:

  • A healthy source of food: Wild rice has been a traditional food for Indigenous people for generations.
  • Indigenous Sovereignty: A right to abide by the original treaties which in many cases did not include the sale of the lakes or waterways.
  • More biodiversity and cleaner water: Wild rice filters water, and provides food and nesting material for animals.

For the cottagers:

  • Their enjoyment of the lake: Recreational activities such as swimming, fishing, and enjoying the view.
  • The unimpeded access to use boats on the lake: The rice plants can create tangled weeds that are difficult to navigate.
  • Investments: Cottagers claim the rice brings down property values.

It is important to note that the cottagers do not own the lake itself but rather the land around the lake.

  • Lakes in Canada are property of the Queen, or rather the Protectorate Canada.
  • Individual provinces then manage the lakes, in this case, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment.

Nationality Does Not = Property

There has always been a false equivalence between race/nationality and property. This is demonstrated in the portrayal of:

  • The current conversation between BLM and the “riots”.
  • Canada’s pipeline disputes, where the sovereignty of reserves is called into question.
  • The Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario, where hazardous elements are dumped onto the land.

It’s a tale as old as this country.

Canada, the great nation of platitudes and half-hearted actions. 

Our slogan may as well be “sorry”, and few look beyond its meaning as a polite turn of phrase. But its connotation is darker. An apology is by definition “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure,” and by now we know Canada has a lot of regrets and equal parts failure.

It may be a hard truth to read, but Canada traded slaves for two hundred years, including Black people, Indigenous people, and anyone else our burgeoning nation could get its hands on.

  • Toronto was once the slave trade hub of the continent, thus we were also once the most wealthy. It was at this peak of trade that human life and property were linked. A link that continues to exist to this day.

A link in a chain that haunts our history books, usually as the unsung ghosts of colonial past. A past that until very recently we were proud of as a nation, with the pioneer villages and history fairs. All built on the bones of discarded property, in all cases victims of progress. 


Beyond Cottagers and Indians: A Systematic Stage

Like any nation, we have ancestors, both oppressed and not as oppressed.

  • On one side are the people forced to live in ghettos without clean water or reliable sources of nutritional food.
  • On the other side are the people who have worked their way up and inherited their fore-parents legacy.

Now the lake is filled with laughter or roaring boats, objects and activities that often disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem. But this lake once offered more than a summer getaway. It offered a place of survival for the people who once lived off the land the cottagers now take advantage of.

It is of course not the child’s fault that the land they were given was drenched in the blood of people they scarcely knew existed.


Williams Treaties

  • In 1923, seven First Nations (including Curve Lake), and the governments of Canada and Ontario signed the Williams Treaties. These treaties transferred over 20,000 km2 to the Crown in exchange for a one-time cash payment, without negotiations, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  • The land was swindled by the Crown in the Williams treaty with the promise to restore hunting and fishing rights.
  • These rights were not honoured.
  • In 2018, the Williams Treaties First Nations and the government came to a final agreement to hold the government accountable.
  • The seven First Nations communities are receiving a $1.1-billion settlement, and the hunting, fishing and harvesting rights of those communities will be recognized and respected.

This is our stage for the conflict between “Cottagers and Indians”. A stage that was designed by a nation that doesn’t want to owe up to either side.

The treaties that in most cases are ignored take precedence. And a hundred years later, the worries that property of the wealthy will be changed by strangers trying to survive.


The Media’s Lens is the People’s Lens

Beyond any reasonable doubt, the winner is the nation, who now has a proactive relevance in the lives of these people who forget it exists beyond the news headlines and elections. This is the only time people bother to read the citizen’s handbook (ie. the laws, charter of rights, and treaties).

  • A system that is prohibitive for the under-educated to learn or fully comprehend.
  • The bureaucracy that is in conflict with itself, in terms of land rights, water rights, and treaty rights, creating issues of who takes precedence.
  • Made more complicated with the half-hearted commitment to Indigenous rights by the federal government.

To any news agency that has become the default voice of the people, it’s an entirely level playing field.

  • See how they portray the criminal anytime an Indigenous person commits crime versus when a white shooter or terrorist commits crime. Look to Tina Fontaine vs. the Nova Scotia Shooter 

The media is the medium through which people come to understand these issues. If the media takes a reductionist lens to the lived inequalities of the Indigenous, then the public will slowly also adopt that lens.

  • We see racism as a problem of the past and not of today, compartmentalizing the injustices to black and white photos and not the people whom we trust such as politicians, who support those photos as little more than “a bit of a mistake.”

The Bottom Line: The debate between “Cottagers and Indians” is an issue of Indigenous Sovereignty. This debate represents the larger picture of how Indigenous people are seen, heard, and portrayed through media and policy in Canada. Issues of life, identity, and culture are boiled down to property, race, and wealth.

  • Canadians take it for granted that they were able to establish businesses, trade, farming, freedom of movement, and the freedom to speak.
  • While Indigenous people have to fight for their own food sovereignty, driving through the destruction of their homes and traditional farms/cultivated land.

To further their independence, growing wild rice restores nationhood, but above all…personhood.

First Nations culture is not captured in the bubble of pre or post-colonial times, neither is Canada. Both are changing.

Both are alive.

The past can easily become our shackles, or it can be a ladder to raise our people up, but it should not dictate our future. Rather, it should inform us as to how we could grow.

I am planting wild rice, I am doing this because I can.


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