This past summer, a conflict occurred between cottagers and Mississauga Nishnaabeg wild rice harvesters on Pigeon Lake in Ontario when folks from the “Save Pigeon Lake” group were issued permits from the Trent-Severn Waterway and Parks Canada to hire a contractor to remove wild rice from the lake.
Curve Lake First Nation member James Whetung was at the centre of the controversy, as a harvester who sells Black Duck Wild Rice regularly at the Peterborough Farmer’s Market and who has been reseeding Pigeon Lake for the past few years.
James is an important person in Mississauga Nishnaabeg communities because he is an expert on wild rice. He has spent years refining the complicated processing of the rice, nurturing the beds back to life, and teaching others how to do the same. He also provides local Nishnaabe communities, my community, and the broader Peterborough community with a local, sustainably harvested source of wild rice, so we don’t have to rely on commercially produced rice from Minnesota.
Minomiin, or wild rice, has grown in our territory since time immemorial and it used to cover many of the lakes in this area, including Pimadashkodeyong (Rice Lake) and Chemong. Curve Lake Elder Doug Williams recounts stories of a tiny canoe path up the centre of Chemong because the rice was so thick and healthy. Our families lived good lives with a beautiful sustainable food system because of wild rice.
Minomiin is a cornerstone of Mississauga Nishnaabeg governance, economy, and well-being. As a food, it is high in protein, and through a complex drying and curing process, it can last through the winter as a staple food, when hunting and fishing are more difficult. Mississauga Nishnaabeg families gather in ricing areas in the fall to pick and process rice – which involves drying, roasting, dancing, and winnowing. Songs, stories, and ceremonies were interwoven with each step. Large amounts of minomiin were cached for the winter.
How can we “advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” without talking about land?
In November, wild rice harvesters from Curve Lake First Nation (Doug Williams and James Whetung) and Alderville First Nation (Dave Mowat and myself) came together with a supportive audience in the Peterborough Public Library to talk about minomiin and reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a word that we’ve heard a lot lately in the media. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently concluded its work and has released its final report with 93 recommendations, which Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to implement “in order to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”
Land is not mentioned in any of the recommendations, in part because the commission was set up to focus on individual suffering in residential schools. Yet, residential schools were a strategy used by Canada to break the connection between Indigenous peoples and our lands, so the state could access the land for settlement and for natural resources.
By taking our children and holding them hostage, the federal government truncated what Indigenous parents were willing to do to resist the most devastating aspects of colonialism. By breaking the intimate connection between children and their families, their culture, their language and their land, the state was attempting to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society and eliminate barriers to natural resources and land. By removing children from Indigenous education systems, the state was hoping to eliminate Indigenous forms of governance and leadership.
Beyond the individual suffering of Indigenous children and families, residential schools have had significant, ongoing implications for maintaining the system of settler colonialism in Canada. While colonialism is something from the past for most Canadians, Indigenous peoples experience it as a system and a process in the present that prevents us from living as Nishnaabeg in our homeland.
Residential schools were a strategy used by Canada to break the connection between Indigenous peoples and our lands, so the state could access the land for settlement and for natural resources.
Residential schools were just one part of an ugly and ongoing strategy to destroy Indigenous nations that included policies such as the Indian Act, fraudulent treaty processes and land theft, the criminalization of Indigenous dissent and resistance, gender violence, and racism.
The past two hundred years have not been kind or fair to the Mississauga Nishnaabeg or our rice. We have been dispossessed, often violently, of virtually all of our territory, which spans the north shore of Lake Ontario. This makes it very difficult for us to live as Nishnaabeg in our homeland.
Wild rice beds have been catastrophically destroyed through construction of the Trent Severn Waterway and fluctuating water levels, the decline of water quality in the lakes, boat traffic, and cottagers actively removing the beds from the waterfront. Our sacred sites, our cemeteries, our hunting grounds, trap lines, fishing spots, ceremonial places, camping places, trails, medicine gathering spots, and wild rice beds are very difficult to access because they are on private land, in provincial parks, or under the control of municipalities and cities.
This presents a tremendous problem for people like me who are raising Nishnaabeg children and who want my kids to fall in love with their land, know their stories and language, and live in the world as Nishnaabeg. I want them to be able to icefish in the winter, fast at the Kinomaage-Waapkong (the Peterborough Petroglyphs), make maple sugar and trap muskrats in the spring, hunt bullfrogs in the summer, and hunt deer, ducks and geese, and of course harvest minomiin in the fall.
How can we “advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” without talking about land? Local First Nations are currently engaged in several battles to protect land: the ability to harvest rice; the burial mounds on “private land” in Hastings, Ontario; the Fraser property, a tract of land set for condo development in Burleigh Falls; and the protection of our beloved Chi’Minis/Boyd Island.
There are very few places left where we can be Nishnaabeg on our own terms. The federal and provincial governments, after years of court battles, have finally recognized hunting and fishing rights for the Williams Treaty communities. This is a tremendous victory for us, as we have very few places we can hunt. Giving these places back is an excellent start to an ongoing process of reconciliation that is more than just apologies and superficial changes.
While Mississauga Nishnaabeg experience a lot of anger, racism and violence from our neighbours, many local people have also encouraged me to hunt on their land, launch canoes from their waterfront, or harvest medicine from their bush – land that they recognize as Nishnaabeg.
Land is an important conversation for Indigenous peoples and Canada to have because land is at the root of our conflicts. Far from asking settler Canadians to pack up and leave, it is critical that we think about how we can better share land. That’s a conversation we’re not having, except when conflict escalates to the level it did last summer on Pigeon Lake.
The night at the Peterborough Public Library showed me that there are organizations and people in the Peterborough area that are interested in figuring out how to share and protect land, and that don’t feel angry or threatened about me being Nishnaabeg in my territory. Indeed, while Mississauga Nishnaabeg experience a lot of anger, racism and violence from our neighbours, many local people have also encouraged me to hunt on their land, launch canoes from their waterfront, or harvest medicine from their bush – land that they recognize as Nishnaabeg.
I get asked “What do you people want anyway?” a lot in my travels. During Idle No More, I decided to think about that question in a deep way and commit to clearly articulating what I want as a Nishnaabekwe. At the end of my presentation that night at the library, I read my vision for the first time in the city I live in:
I want my great-grandchildren to be able to fall in love with every piece of our territory. I want their bodies to carry with them every story, every song, every piece of poetry hidden in our Nishnaabeg language. I want them to be able to dance through their lives with joy. I want them to live without fear because they know respect, because they know in their bones what respect feels like. I want them to live without fear because they have a pristine environment with clean waterways that will provide them with the physical and emotional sustenance to uphold their responsibilities to the land, their families, their communities, and their nations. I want them to be valued, heard, and cherished by our communities and by Canada no matter their skin colour, their physical and mental abilities, their sexual orientation, or their gender orientation.
I want my great-great-grandchildren and their great-great-grandchildren to be able to live as Mississauga Nishnaabeg unharassed and undeterred in our homeland.
The idea of my arms embracing my grandchildren, and their arms embracing their grandchildren is communicated in the Nishnaabe word kobade. According to elder Edna Manitowabi, kobade is a word we use to refer to our great grandparents and our great-grandchildren. It means a link in a chain – a link in the chain between generations, between nations, between states of being, between individuals. I am a link in a chain. We are all links in a chain.
I want my great-grandchildren to be able to fall in love with every piece of our territory. I want their bodies to carry with them every story, every song, every piece of poetry hidden in our Nishnaabeg language.
Doug Williams, a Mississauga Nishnaabeg elder from Curve Lake First Nation calls our nation Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg ogamig – the place where we all live and work together. Our nation is a hub of Nishnaabe networks. It is a long kobade, cycling through time. It is a web of connections to each other, to the plant nations, the animal nations, the rivers and lakes, the cosmos, and our neighbouring Indigenous nations.
Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig is an ecology of intimacy.
It is an ecology of relationships in the absence of coercion, hierarchy, or authoritarian power.
Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig is connectivity based on the sanctity of the land, the love we have for our families, our language, our way of life. It is relationships based on deep reciprocity, respect, non-interference, self-determination, and freedom.
Our nationhood is based on the idea that the earth is our first mother, that “natural resources” are not “natural resources” at all, but gifts from our mother. Our nationhood is based on the foundational concept that we should give up what we can to support the integrity of our homelands for the coming generations. We should give more than we take.
It is nationhood based on a series of radiating responsibilities.
This is what I understand our diplomats were negotiating when settlers first arrived in our territory. This was the impetus for those very first treaties – Nishnaabe freedom, protection for the land and the environment, a space – an intellectual, political, spiritual, artistic, creative, and physical space where we could live as Nishnaabe and where our Kobade could do the same.
This is what my Ancestors wanted for me, for us. They wanted for our generation to practice Nishnaabe governance over our homeland, to partner with other governments over shared lands, to have the ability to make decisions about how the gifts of our mother would be used for the benefit of our people and in a manner to promote her sanctity for coming generations. I believe my ancestors expected the settler state to recognize my nation, our lands and the political and cultural norms in our territory.
My nationhood doesn’t just radiate outwards, it also radiates inwards. It is my physical body, my mind, and my spirit. It is our families – not the nuclear family that has been normalized in settler society, but big, beautiful, diverse, extended multi-racial families of relatives and friends that care very deeply for each other.
If reconciliation is to be meaningful, we need to be willing to dismantle settler colonialism as a system. Our current government needs to move beyond window dressing and begin to tackle the root causes of Indigenous oppression in Canada. This means respecting when Indigenous peoples say no to development on our lands. It means dismantling land claims and self government processes that require us to terminate our Aboriginal and treaty rights to sit at the table. It means repealing the most damaging aspects of the Indian Act and respecting First Nations political systems, governance, and ability to determine who belongs in our communities. It means being accountable about the collective damage that has been done and is being done, and supporting the regeneration of languages, cultures, and political systems. It means stop fighting us in court. It means giving back land, so we can rebuild and recover from the losses of the last four centuries and truly enter into a new relationship with Canada and Canadians.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a member of Alderville First Nation. She is a writer, artist, and academic. Leanne is the author of Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, The Gift Is in the Making, Islands of Decolonial Love, and most recently of As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. www.leannesimpson.ca
This article originally appeared in Peterborough’s Electric City Magazine. www.electriccitymagazine.ca