JAMES WHETUNG IS WILLING TO go to jail for wild rice. When he was a child, he helped his uncles harvest it in the Kawartha Lakes area, northeast of Toronto. As a Christmas treat, he ate wild rice pudding. His family members were among the last rice gatherers in his Curve Lake First Nations community.
“80 years ago, most of Kawartha Lakes had lots of wild rice in them,” says Whetung. “It used to be the rice bowl of North America.” One rice bed mentioned in Curve Lake oral history measured 17 miles long by a mile wide. “Used to,” Whetung says. “It’s gone now.” He blames the construction of the Trent Severn Canal, built in 1833, for much of that disappearance. Once an important shipping route, the waterway is now a National Historic Site operated by Parks Canada and a popular recreation area.
Today, there’s a tense, decades-old standoff between Whetung and recreational users of the lakes. That’s because he’s been reseeding wild rice in this area for the past 30 years. Boating, fishing, and swimming are difficult where the thick rice beds are flourishing once again. Cottage owners claim their property values are dropping as a result. Whetung has become a lightning rod for anger and frustration. His opponents created a group called “Save Pigeon Lake” to thwart Whetung’s efforts. So dramatic and protracted is this battle that the well-known Canadian author Drew Hayden Taylor, himself from Curve Lake First Nations, wrote a play about it, called Cottagers and Indians.
“I don’t care,” Whetung says after telling me about the opposition to his activities. “I would go to jail for it.”
Whetung has grown wild rice for 30 years. DARCY RHYNO