This year there are eleven writers on the longlist for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and Curve Lake First Nation author Drew Hayden Taylor is one of them. The prize, worth $15,000, is awarded to the best book of humour each year.
Taylor is nominated for his play “Cottagers and Indians,” which chronicles the real-life tensions between Indigenous wild rice harvesters, and home and cottage owners on Pigeon Lake, located in the Kawartha Lakes region in south-central Ontario.
The story goes back to 2015 when media reports surfaced about a dispute between a man named James Whetung who was planting and harvesting rice in Pigeon Lake to revive a traditional source of nourishment, and cottagers who organized a group called Save Pigeon Lake.
Although Indigenous people are legally allowed to harvest rice at the lake, some cottagers and homeowners say the rice is so thick it makes it impossible to navigate their boats, fish, or swim.
In the play, characters Arthur Copper, of the Anishinaabe First Nation, and cottager Maureen Poole, of Toronto, go head-to-head. The play causes audiences to think about who remains the rightful caretakers of Canadian land.
We spoke with Taylor at his Curve Lake First Nation home near Peterborough, where he is staying during the coronavirus pandemic.
Congratulations on your nomination for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal.
Thank you. I actually wrote the play a year-and-a-half ago. It was first staged at Taragon Theatre in Toronto. It did very well, sold out for four or five weeks, and then I took it on a short tour through Ontario’s cottage country.
After that it played two weeks at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa. It was due for a theatre in Thunder Bay, and then the run was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The real tragedy, is this coming summer it was supposed to be produced at three southern Ontario theatre companies; one in Port Perry, one in Kincardine, and one on Manitoulin Island.
What kind of impact has the play had?
So many people who see it are cottagers who want to find out what the issue is and how it’s being approached. Aside from its theatrical run, it’s been incorporated into a lot of college and university curriculum as an example of Native and non-Native conflicts involving land and water.
Because of the exploration of those conflicts, it’s a launching pad for looking at larger Canadian-wide issues. It’s also being developed into a documentary for CBC Television. That should air in June. I co-wrote it, co-directed it and co-produced it.
A documentary version of “Cottagers and Indians.” Is this the first TV show you’ve helped write and produce?
LOL, if you want to get into it, I’m a thousand years old, and if you want to go way back, my first legitimate writing credit was an episode of a show called “The Beachcombers.” And since then I worked on “Street Legal,” and “North of 60,” and a lot of documentaries and TV shows over the years. Nothing says inspiration like a mortgage.
You’re working on a soon-to-be broadcast APTN series called “Going Native.” What is it about?
“Going Native” is about interesting and exciting Indigeneous people in Canada and the U.S. We’re producing shows on Indigenous pop culture, zombie movies, gourmet cooking, things that Indigenous people are doing in the broad spectrum of Indigenous culture. Very unexpected and interesting.
Of everything you’ve filmed so far of the series, what jumps out for you?
We were in Yakima, Washington, where we saw traditional fishing using nets to catch salmon from cliffs swimming upstream. It was fascinating. We went to Mesa Verde, where we got a personalized tour and I was honoured and privileged to see all of that.
From the contemporary spectrum there’s a growing influence of native science-fiction and zombie movies, videogames, and virtual reality. Also, gourmet cooking. For thousands of years Native people have harvested and used the bounty of the land to make healthy, sumptuous, hearty cuisine and now we’re seeing Nouveau- Native cuisine. I’m very privileged to be part of a production like that and revel in the brilliance of our people.
When will the series go to air?
That hasn’t been nailed down. Possibly in October.
What else are you working on?
I’m also working on a novel that I’m half way through, and writing articles for the Globe and Mail on the Native perspective on the arts.
Where are you staying during the pandemic?
I split my time between Curve Lake where I was born and raised, and my place in Toronto. The problem with life on the reserve is there aren’t enough Thai restaurants there.
What are three things you have learned about yourself as a result of the pandemic?
First of all, I’m a single child of a single parent and I grew up pretty much alone. At first I was handling the aloneness quite well, but now I’m getting stir crazy. I want people. I want to go to a movie, I want to go to a play, I want to go to dinner. I wasn’t expecting to need human company quite that badly.
Secondly, trying to order food, some places aren’t open any more, some have limited menus, some have weirder hours, so I have to figure out when to call ahead and what I can get.
And the most amazing, wonderful thing, I’m seeing a lot more wildlife than I normally would, whether I’m in the country or in the city.