Decolonizing Cottage Country: Anishinaabe Art Intervenes in Canada’s Wild Rice War

Photo by Sean Carleton

A battle is raging between cottagers and Mississauga Anishinaabe over the harvesting of wild rice (minomiin, manomin, or manoomin) on Pigeon Lake. The conflict, which started in the summer of 2015, is ongoing and gaining international attention as “Canada’s wild rice war.”

Pigeon Lake is part of a cluster of lakes in the Kawarthas region just north east of Toronto, popularly known as “cottage country,” and cottagers there see wild rice as an annoying weed. They have formed the group Save Pigeon Lake to lobby for the removal of wild rice to make boating easier and to protect their lakefront property values.

Mississauga Anishinaabe, however, have harvested wild rice in the Kawarthas since time immemorial as an integral cultural, spiritual, and economic practice. Wild rice is an excellent food source because it is rich in protein and can be dried and stored for winter, making it an essential component of traditional food security.

As a creative intervention into the fight for wild rice, the Ogimaa Mikana (Reclaiming/Renaming) Project has installed a new billboard on the highway to Pigeon Lake near Nogojiwanong (Peterborough, ON). For the past few years, the Ogimaa Mikana has reclaimed and renamed street signs and historical plaques in the city of Toronto with Anishinaabe versions. In 2016, the project expanded with the installation of billboards across Anishinaabe territory, with the most recent being “Anishinaabe manoomin inaakonigewin gosha” which translates as “wild rice is Anishinaabe law.” In drawing attention to the importance of wild rice for Anishinaabe people, it is part of the effort to decolonize cottage country.

I recently had the chance to speak with Susan Blight who, along with Hayden King, co-curate the project.

Sean Carleton: Can you explain why you chose to focus on wild rice for your newest billboard?

Susan Blight: I grew up with wild rice. My grandfather, Albert Morrisseau, harvested every year and I came up knowing the familiar smell of wild rice roasting over a fire; to me that smells like home. In spite of the fact that I live in Toronto now, I’m still very connected to my home. Last year, I travelled home to help prepare the manoomin with my mother, my stepfather, my brother in law, my uncle and my nephew. As I was turning the rice that was roasting, my mom told me that her Uncle Dan (my grandfather’s brother) told her when she was a girl, “look at the color of that rice right now—put it in your mind and don’t forget—that’s the color of roasting you want.” When the rice was the perfect color, she showed it to me and said, “that’s the color you want right there.” I haven’t forgotten. To me, that continuum from my great uncle to my mom to me represents how Anishinaabeg carry forward our knowledge. It’s powerful and it’s relational and it’s radical, really.

It cannot be overstated how important manoomin is to the Anishinaabeg. Our relationship to manoomin is over 15,000 years old; it goes all the way back to our migration story and how we as Anishinaabeg came to be on these lands upon which we raised our families for generations. Manoomin was central to how we came to be here. And for thousands of years, the Anishinaabeg have honoured that relationship.

Beyond that, manoomin is connected to Anishinaabeg notions of governance and by that, I mean governing our communities and governing ourselves and how we go about our lives on this earth as Anishinaabeg. There are teachings within manoominike (the harvesting of manoomin) that are central philosophical and spiritual tenets of the Anishinaabeg; teachings about respect, reciprocity, working for others, humility, gentleness, responsibility, balance, about relationships, and giving more than you take. Anishinaabeg rarely tell each other how they should be—we have too much respect for freedom and self-determination to do that—instead we are shown how we should be through our land-based practices including manoominike. So in this way, wild rice is our teacher. And when the manoomin or our freedom to harvest manoomin is threatened, part of our existence as Anishinaabeg is threatened.

The Ogimaa Mikana Project is about asserting and restoring Anishinaabeg nationhood through the use of our language, Anishinaabemowin, in creative ways. It seemed appropriate to create a piece that centered manoomin, and the hope is that the piece generates critical dialogue not just about manoomin but about land, histories, jurisdiction, and reciprocity.

SC: Why did you choose to install the billboard just outside of Nogojiwanong (Peterborough) and why now?

SB: Hayden King (co-curator of the Ogimaa Mikana Project) and I heard and read about the conflict between cottagers and Anishinaabeg wild rice harvesters on Pigeon Lake. In my view, it is unconscionable that Parks Canada can and did issue permits to have rice beds—a source of healthy, sustainable food—destroyed with no input from the Anishinaabeg. But the conflict speaks to a larger issue about land within the settler colonial system and about the ways in which the state—supported by the people who benefit from settler colonialism—seeks to keep Anishinaabeg from being Anishinaabeg on the land. It was important to us to put the billboard in the heart of the conflict, during Manoominike Giizis (the Wild Rice Moon).

SC: How do you think your art can intervene in the “wild rice wars”?

SB: I view our pieces as creative interventions and our work as highly informed by social practice as an art form. By altering common, oft taken-for-granted aspects of the cityscape, we are presenting interventions that the public can choose to engage with or not. While the work definitely asserts and privileges Anishinaabeg language and ways of knowing, we are hoping for multiple interpretations of the work. Our hope is to open up questions about the land we are on and to disrupt viewer’s assumptions about the land known as Canada.

I view the Anishinaabe Manoomin Inaakonigewin Gosha billboard as an act of solidarity with Misi Zaaging Anishinaabeg (Mississauga Anishinaabeg) whose territory the billboard stands on and who have harvested manoomin since time immemorial, this in spite of the Trent Severn Waterway and other projects of settler encroachment that have been catastrophic to the wild rice beds. We hold up the jurisdiction of the Misi Zaaging Anishinaabeg and we honor their right to be Anishinaabeg on their own terms on the land.

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In light of international support for the inspiring stand by Indigenous nations to block the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US to protect the land and water for future generations, it is also important to support the struggles for land and Indigenous sovereignty in Canada. But, as Canadian Dimension made clear in a recent editorial, this burden should not fall on Indigenous peoples alone. It is a heavy responsibility that must be more equally shouldered by Canadians and Quebecers. Labour and activist groups from coast to coast should rally to support Indigenous land defenders. Because we share the Earth, we must also share in the struggles to defend it against the depredations of colonialism and capitalism.

Sean Carleton is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta. He is a CD editor and currently lives in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), Anishinaabe Territory.

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