By Brooke Peloquin
OTTAWA – A group of lakes about 90 minutes northeast of Toronto has seen a recent resurgence of wild rice that has angered many residents and visitors to the area.
The plant grows in shallow lakes and when ripe, its stalks protrude from the water producing edible seeds similar to grain rice.
Its tall stems and weed-like leaves have encroached on lakeside residents’ enjoyment of what is known as the Kawartha Lakes region. That’s because it restricts navigation, access to beaches and waterfront and harms the value of lakefront properties.
Enraged residents are pressuring to halt the seeding and harvesting of the rice, which has drawn attention to the practices of native groups in the area.
But the wild rice is not a new development, said James Conolly, a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
“The rice has been here, it just went away for a bit because the lakes are better and the fact is that First Nations have been harvesting rice for thousands of years,” Conolly said.
Conolly explores the history of the relationship between humans and the environment. His research focuses on how long wild rice has been growing in the Kawartha Lakes. He estimates that could be thousands of years.
The community’s uproar can be explained by what ecologists call “shifting baseline syndrome,” Conolly said.
“It’s a well-known ecological syndrome by which people set their baselines of what’s normal on their memory, not on ecological history.”
“What constitutes normal for a lot of cottagers is what it was like in 196o. It was a pretty low point for the health of the lakes,” he said. “Now that the lakes are clear and healthier and the wild rice is back, somehow that’s seen as a problem because it wasn’t like that in 1960.”
Wild rice flourishes in shallow water, where sunlight can penetrate deep enough to germinate the seeds that lie on the bottom of lakes. Any environmental variation can inhibit its ability to grow.
A study of the water levels in Rice Lake, located just south of Peterborough, discovered that water levels stabilized by dams had once killed off wild rice. The study by John McAndrews, a now retired professor from the University of Toronto, analyzed pollen samples to draw that conclusion.
As an annual plant, the reproduction of wild rice depends on seed banks that reactivate year to year. With raised water levels, the seed banks would be too low in the water to repopulate, said Tom Whillans, a restoration ecologist at Trent University.
“That’s one reason why it would have disappeared, because of the way that the dams were put in,” Whillans said. “The second reason is that it depends very much on water quality.”
Until recently, the Kawartha Lakes water quality was extremely poor as a result of erosion from land use and sewage drainage. Both spurred the production of algae that shielded sunlight on the water’s surface, making it impossible for the wild rice to grow.
“What’s changed over the last 10 to 15 years is we have something called the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement,” said Whillans. “So we’ve got water that could potentially support rice that in the past the water clarity just wasn’t good enough for.”
Despite the benefits of clearer water, residents of Pigeon Lake, in the Kawartha Lakes region, have banned together to voice their frustrations through the Save Pigeon Lake campaign.
The campaign has been used as a platform for residents to express their rice-related concerns, including limited access to the water and depreciating lakefront property values. More recently they have tried to to stop a member of the local First Nations community from mechanically harvesting the lake’s rice.
To their dismay, James Whetung, from Curve Lake First Nation, has been using an engine and propeller powered boat to harvest the lake’s rice, which they say is “not environmentally friendly.”
Although harvesting the rice may be seen as a solution to its resurgence, Save Pigeon Lake supporters say that harvesting it mechanically creates a “constant roar,” and requires seeding throughout the lake because “this method does not allow the rice to replenish itself naturally.”
Mechanical harvesting differs greatly from the traditional methods practiced by Alderville Elder Jeff Beaver. Beaver’s traditional method of harvesting involves two people in a canoe who tap the rice from the stalks and into the bottom of the boat.
Beaver has been heavily involved in the restoration and conservation of wild rice in the Kawartha Lakes and considers it a large part of First Nations heritage.
“Certainly it’s a culturally significant plant for our people and we’re still using it as a food source,” he said. “They think it was here at least 4,000 years ago.”
This estimate is based on the Seven Fires Prophecy, a collection of key spiritual teachings for the First Nations people living on Turtle Island, or North America.
“If you look at some of the prophecies, like the Seven Fires Prophecy, they mention wild rice…and finding the place where the food grows on the water,” said Beaver.
Editors note: Brooke Peloquin is a journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. This story is part of a binational partnership with Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, the publisher of Great Lakes Echo.