The Land Beneath My Feet
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 100 Years of the Williams Treaties Special Issue, 2023
By Drew Hayden Taylor
I am from a place called Curve Lake First Nation. It’s located deep in the nether regions of the Kawartha Lakes area in Ontario. In some ways, my home is an odd place.
Technically you’d have a difficult time finding an actual lake called Curve Lake. I believe, and I could be wrong, that the name is a reference to how the lakes that border the land curve around it, creating a peninsula—those specific lakes being Buckhorn and Chemong Lake. About a hundred years or so ago, the community and Chemong Lake were called Mud Lake. Not quite as attractive a name. Thus the change, one would assume. And who knows, in today’s climate, there might be a lot less mud in the lake.
Names aside, that is where I come from, and currently still reside. Just ask around. People will tell you where I live. Specifically, I still occupy the house my mother scraped enough money together to pay for. I’ve been under that roof since bell bottom jeans were in fashion (the first time around).
Back in the 1970s, CBC shot a one-hour television drama here. It was quite exciting. But usually Curve Lake is a quiet, practically boring community. Most of my childhood was spent waiting for something to happen. At least, that’s what I remember.
But on occasion, things do happen in and around Curve Lake that have an oddly disproportionate effect on the area, and to a lesser extent, the entire country.
If you’re a fan of treaty law, in 1977 two members of Curve Lake First Nation—Doug Williams and Wayne Taylor (no relation)—were arrested for hunting bullfrogs out of season. This was a violation of the 1923 Williams Treaty, which limited Indigenous hunting and fishing rights. The simple act of spearing bullfrogs to feed their families had larger implications, resulting in the case winding its way through court. The final outcome was decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, who refused to hear the province of Ontario’s appeal. The good guys actually won that one.
I was 15 at the time and didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. Although I became good friends with Doug and his family, and always tried to be supportive of the issue, not being a fan of fried bullfrog legs or the intricate ins and outs of treaty law meant that my support was only so effective. Still, this became a pivotal point in local history and it continues to be commented on, in legal contexts, to this day.
Speaking of freshly fried bullfrogs, nothing goes better with them than some nice tasty manoomin. Recently, manoomin—or as the settlers call it, wild rice—has become somewhat of a contentious issue in our territory. This lovely plant that grows strong and lush in our lakes has, for a variety of reasons, pissed off a lot of settler people.
But perhaps a history lesson is in order. A thousand years ago, ten thousand years ago, even a hundred years ago, and all the years in between, manoomin used to grow wild and free in most of Ontario (and parts of the northern U.S.). It was delicious and tasty, and our people grew strong and healthy from consuming it.
The local waters were perfect for it, shallow, clean, and calm. Notice my use of the past tense. This was before the advent of civilization and Western expansion. In this case, I’m referring to the Trent Severn Waterway, a collection of locks that were built to connect Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. In order to better facilitate the movement of big boats and log drives along the route, the water level had to rise.
This rising water had two specific effects: first, it flooded a good chunk of land belonging to several First Nation communities along the waterway, including my own; and second, it obliterated a large swath of manoomin fields, so much so that the plant practically became extinct in our area. From then on, we had to buy manoomin in stores—if we could afford it. It went from being a staple in Indigenous homes to being on the top shelf of high-end grocery stores.
To make a long story short, this absence of manoomin added to the eventual shift in First Nation diets. Processed and refined foods began to fill the larders of Rez homes. Hamburgers, french fries, pop, and ice cream became the nouveau survival foods. The end result of that, of course, was obesity and diabetes. As a kid, I think I had manoomin as part of a meal maybe five times in total.
Then came James Whetung, a man from my Reserve who wanted to do something about this problem. On his own, he decided to reintroduce manoomin to the area. At one time, he told me, the Kawarthas were the “breadbasket” of the Anishinaabe nation. Thus began a 20-year odyssey.
James started planting manoomin seeds all over the Kawartha Lakes, focusing specifically on Pigeon Lake. And, as if they remembered their distant past, those seeds grew and once again the lakes became lush and fertile, practically overrun with manoomin.
Of course, this in itself became a new problem. Manoomin, when fully grown, stands a good foot or two above the waterline. Add to that the increasing value of cottages in the area (a newspaper article once reported that a lakefront cottage within a three hour drive of Toronto costs as much as a home in its downtown core, if not more) and you see the issue. Suddenly, money was involved.
In the intervening years since manoomin had originally grown in the Kawartha Lakes, numerous cottages and homes had sprouted up along the shoreline. In those dwellings lived people who did not like how manoomin’s very existence interfered with swimming, boating, and fishing. Rumour had it that property values were being affected. All those who complained were, for the most part, non-Native. Or as we say in the community, “pigment denied.”
As a fellow playwright once said, “ay, there’s the rub.”
The ensuing conflict between James and the shoreline inhabitants became so heated that eventually I wrote a play about it. I also co-directed a documentary exploring Native/non-Native disagreements around land and water issues, with the manoomin controversy headlining. And, to my knowledge, it has yet to be resolved. Sometimes on a quiet summer night, you can still hear the grumbling.
I am not sure if manoomin was included in the Williams Treaty, or in any treaty for that matter, but it’s important for every Canadian to know that we are all treaty people. Anybody who has a passport and watches Hockey Night in Canada, this refers to you. Many think treaties only affect Indigenous people, but like any bargain or agreement, there are two sides. And there is an ebb and flow to treaties, meaning they can be amended and revised.
Elsewhere in Ontario, Sauble Beach knows something about the fluid nature of treaties. The town is a popular tourist spot along the shore of Lake Huron. An Ontario Supreme Court justice recently ruled that a local First Nation community called Saugeen, which has been fighting to regain possession of a 2.5 km stretch of shoreline in the area for over 150 years, is and always has been the rightful owner. The stretch of beach was originally reserved for the Saugeen First Nation as a valuable fishing ground under Treaty 72, which was signed back in 1854. Then the community’s rights got lost in the sands of time. But not anymore.
There once was a time, surprisingly not that long ago, when Indigenous people weren’t allowed to hire lawyers. But those days are over. Now we have our own lawyers—Indigenous lawyers—who can read these treaties backwards and forwards. In the past, government treaty negotiators would come to the table not speaking our languages. Now, we speak theirs.
One final note. For most Native people, treaties can be like the Bible; they may have an inordinate amount of impact and influence on our everyday lives, but very few of us have ever taken the opportunity to actually read them. We just “kinda” know what’s on those pages.
I think it’s time to change that.
Life here in Curve Lake is still pretty quiet and peaceful. Most of us like it that way. Maybe someday they’ll come back to shoot another TV drama. Until then, I have to figure out where one can find a treaty to read around here.
Drew Hayden Taylor was born, raised, and still lives in Curve Lake First Nation, located in Central Ontario. It’s easy to find, just go to the centre of the universe and you’re there.