Give a bowl of rice to a man and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to grow his own rice and you will save his life. But plant wild rice on a lake in cottage-country Ontario and all hell breaks loose.
With his lively, thought-provoking new documentary Cottagers & Indians (based on his hit play of the same name), the Ojibwa playwright and humorist Drew Hayden Taylor explores the curious actions of James Whetung, who is from Curve Lake First Nation and seeds wild rice on Pigeon Lake in the province’s Kawartha region.
In the name of “food sovereignty,” the rebel in a fan boat sows discontent among home- and cottage-owners – settlers, if you will – whose water-based lifestyle is disrupted by the lake-clogging rice beds.
In advance of his film’s premiere on CBC on July 4, we got into the reeds with Hayden Taylor (who is from Curve Lake First Nation himself) on rice riots and Indigenous water rights.
The film’s central figure is James Whetung, who claims to be cultivating wild rice because of nutritional issues related to diabetes, apparently a condition not uncommon among people in Curve Lake First Nation. Is that a genuine motive, or is it more a matter of him making a little money while stirring up trouble?
James tells me, and I’m inclined to believe him, that he barely makes what is referred to as the poverty line. A lot of members of his family suffer from diabetes. And, as of two years ago, I do too.
But he’s provocative, can we say that?
He’s passionate about what he’s doing. Sometimes that passion can get combative and a little aggressive. On the flip side, he does give educational seminars on the benefits of wild rice. He also takes a lot of settlers on the water in canoes to show them what he does and why he does it.
He also says at one point that a compromise is reachable, but is he honestly interested in working toward one?
It’s a cut-and-dry issue with him.
Literally, as well as figuratively.
Correct. Basically, as he says in the film, it’s a matter of ancestral heritage. It’s about sovereignty, and it’s legal, according to what he says.
The film is based on your play, which The Globe and Mail reviewed favourably. Was that the critical consensus?
A lot of the reviews weren’t as positive as we expected. They felt like I wimped out on the conflict between the two sides. In the play, I had the two characters pitching their cases to the audience, rather than to each other. They felt I could have amped up the sense of conflict.
That’s interesting, because in the film you were accused by a couple of doing just that when you filmed James Whetung seeding wild rice in the water right in front of their home.
It was an odd situation. It got a bit tense. But it was completely a surprise to us.
The idea of settlers being upset with an Indigenous man for what they see as infringing on their property rights is a great case of poetic justice. But one could see the justice as real, not just poetic, yes?
How would you settle this thing?
Don’t you know the first rule of a documentary filmmaker is to be completely objective? It’s too complex, really. The cottagers would like a moratorium on planting rice within 30 metres from their docks. That’s not of any interest to James. So, I don’t have an answer.
Do you like wild rice yourself?
Yes, I do. It can be sprinkled into pancakes and cookies. It has a lovely nutty taste to it.
I’m not sure cookies and pancakes are good for diabetes. How are you feeling these days?
Well, you know, I’m getting old now. I’m 57. But I still think I look young and vital and vibrant. And I still have something to stay.
I’ll give you the latter.
As we say on my reserve, gracias.