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Review: Cottagers & Indians

July 4, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on his stage play of the same name, writer and director Drew Hayden Taylor’s engaging and informative documentary Cottagers & Indians, which premieres tonight on CBC, explores the fierce battle that is raging in the Kawartha Lakes between a group of mostly white cottagers and members of Curve Lake First Nation.

At the heart of this central Ontario cottage country dispute is wild rice, traditionally called “manoomin” which translates to “the good seed” and is considered a gift from the creator. It has grown naturally in shallow waterways in the area for thousands of years, before settlers came and developed the land. Now James Whetung of Curve Lake First Nation, who happens to be a friend of Hayden Taylor, has taken it upon himself to rejuvenate the crops by cultivating wild rice along the Trent-Severn Waterway.

Helped by his white partner, Whetung goes out on his fanboat planting seeds along Pigeon Lake and harvesting the wild rice, providing Curve Lake with a traditional food source and bringing the product to market. But this has drawn the ire of cottagers who live on the other side of the lake, and representing them is Larry Wood and his wife, local residents who are leading the charge against Whetung and his rice planting endeavours. But Whetung argues that he is merely reseeding the area with plants that used to grow there naturally, and the federal government’s Indian Act allows him to do so.

Because of his background, playwright and filmmaker Hayden Taylor himself brings a very interesting perspective to this ongoing dispute. Born to an Ojibwe mother and a white father, whom he never really knew, he was raised on Curve Lake First Nation by his mother, but also passes as a white man. To his credit, the director does strive for a balanced approach in Cottagers & Indians, offering interviews with the cottagers and listening to their side of the story, while finding obvious sympathies with Whetung.

There are many nuances to this fight. The wild rice plants clog up boat engines and make it harder to even paddle through the water in a canoe, and the cottagers also want the waterways kept clear and pristine so their grandkids can go swimming and waterskiing, like they used to do. This seems somewhat trivial compared to what Whetung wants, which is food sovereignty for his people. With rising rates of diabetes in his community due to an over reliance on processed foods, the wild rice provides a healthy and nutritious local option for sustenance.

But it gets more complicated. We also hear from an Indigenous man who owns a local gas stop and relies on motorboats coming through in need of gas in order to keep his business afloat, putting him somewhat on the side of the cottagers. This local dispute functions as a microcosm of Native land being stolen throughout Canada’s history, raising questions of where the lines are and who owns what.

Throughout his film, Hayden Taylor also touches upon the ongoing land disputes over Sauble Beach in the Bruce Peninsula, and travels to Winnipeg where water for the city was taken from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, leaving them under a boil water advisory for over two decades. He also takes us to a reserve in Osoyoos, British Columbia, home to a thriving vineyard and race track where they have embraced the idea of working alongside settlers, leading to a marked uptick in property value.

Over the course of the film’s fast-paced 44 minute running time, made to be broadcast in an hour-long time slot with commercials, Cottagers & Indians is able to offer a good overview of this complex dispute, with Hayden Taylor’s cameras capturing some tense, heated moments as both sides go head to head. It’s a thought provoking film that is worth watching.

Cottagers & Indians premieres tonight, July 4th, at 8 PM EST on CBC TV and CBC Gem, and is part of the CBC Docs POV series.

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