The indigenous communities fighting back in Canada

| 12th March 2018
The Canadian government has given the go ahead for an oil pipeline extension which would run through 518 km of Secwepemc Territory. But its people, the so-called 'Tiny House Warriors', are fighting back, one small dwelling at a time. KATIE DANCY-DOWNS went to visit them

It’s really important for the government to really pay attention to what is happening right now with the indigenous resurgence. People are saying that Standing Rock was a renaissance. We’re saying it doesn’t stop there.

Standing before Little Shuswap Lake, where ice has formed into wave-like crests and ominous mountains disappear into deep cloud, there is a feeling of deep peace that you feel you could stand and soak up forever.

Deer tracks flit across the snow, and birds of prey hover overhead. But with the bitter winter chill comes a reminder of the destruction that could soon fall upon the surrounding land.

In future years, will the water in the lake still be clean? Will bears and coyote still live here peacefully?

Pipeline expansion

In Canada, we are meeting indigenous groups at the forefront of climate action. So many people tell us that everything is connected by water. What we soon discover is that many of these communities are connected by something else - an oil pipeline that is about to rip through their land.

One of those groups is the Tiny House Warriors, and Little Shuswap Lake is part of their territory.

As I write this, Canadian news channels are again discussing the Trans Mountain Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the pipeline will go ahead. It is in the national interest, he says.

One person whose interest the pipeline is not in, is Kanahus Manuel, the activist defending her native Secwepemc territory, and leading the Tiny House Warriors.

“These tiny houses are actually big giant houses in what they stand for,” Kanahus says.

Going big, by going small

Ten handmade wooden houses will be placed along the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline route, which runs across 518 km of Secwepemc Territory. This is in addition to a pipeline which already runs through indigenous land.

The Secwepemc people have not consented to the pipeline, and Kanahus says they never will.

She tells me: “As the Secwepemc people we are the first to be impacted by any kind of development or destruction of our land. We have the say in what’s happening in our territory. There are minimal standards that Canada should be abiding by. There are minimal standards that Kinder Morgan should be abiding by.”

Standing out against the snow, the first tiny house has been splashed with vivid paintings: an emerald and ruby coloured fish jumping from clean water, a wolf seemingly leaping from the house, and a mountain landscape mirroring the exact place where we’re standing.

These illustrations hold the stories of the Secwepemc people, and explain why they are choosing to resist the pipeline and oil extraction.

Indigenous resurgence

So far, three of the 10 tiny houses have been built, and Kanahus is calling for volunteer builders to help deliver the project.

Some people have tipped this protest as the next Standing Rock, where indigenous communities stood up against the Dakota Access pipeline. In fact, Standing Rock is the very place where Kanahus first encountered tiny houses, when one was built in two and a half days for her and her children.

Kanahus tells us: “It’s really important for the government to really pay attention to what is happening right now with the indigenous resurgence. People are saying that Standing Rock was a renaissance. We’re saying it doesn’t stop there.

"This is a revolution to change the planet, and the government has to get on board and be on the right side of history.”

At Standing Rock, Kanahus saw tiny houses bulldozed. At the Sun Peaks Ski Resort protest, she saw tiny houses being burnt down. She does not want to see that happen to these 10 houses. So, cleverly, she’s making sure they’re mobile by building them on wheels.

A protest

There is more to tiny houses than protest. Putting the houses on wheels also pays homage to the Secwepemc people’s nomadic lifestyle, which was torn apart when indigenous communities were forced onto Indian reserves.

Once, Kanahus’s ancestors would have stayed in winter villages in the valleys, and then moved up the mountains in the summer, finally arriving at the huckleberries at the end of the season.

The houses are also a way to prove that people can take less from the planet, and eliminate clutter. The solar-powered houses have all that a family would need, and nothing more.

They are a solution to a housing crisis, and a tool for undoing some of the damage inflicted by colonisation.

Oil pipelines, ski resorts, and other industries have had an impact on the Secwepemc people; traditional basket weavers struggle to source the wood they need, because of over-logging. Berries are harder to find, so too are plants for medicines.

Reviving traditions

The tiny houses are going to change things, and they will be a way of keeping traditions alive. They will offer language immersion camps, ethnobotany training, and other traditions that Kanahus is desperate to see revived.

As we meet Kanahus’s family, it is clear how deeply this connection with the Earth runs within the Secwepemc people. Kanahus’s mother, Beverly, tells me: “The most important thing is our water, because it provides everything for Mother Earth.”

She teaches me the words for water, lake, and river in her Shuswap language. The only word she imparts which is unrelated to water is ‘kwimenemekkcw’ - the word for ‘tiny houses.’

Kanahus says: “Our connection is so deep, and we say that when we walk the Earth, we’re walking on the blood and bones of our ancestors, and that’s why we tread lightly, and we show so much respect to our Earth.”

It is clear why the Tiny House Warriors are fighting so hard against the pipeline. They fight not just against the physical destruction of their sacred land, but they also fight against the threat of an oil spill, the pollution of water, and the erosion of their ancient culture.

Camp Cloud

We’ve heard there’s another protest against the pipeline in Burnaby Mountain in Vancouver, so we head there to find out more.

As we arrive, we see a banner reading ‘Water is Life.’ Right behind it, an official sign declares ‘Kinder Morgan Burnaby Terminal.’ Behind this, a wire fence, a security office, and 13 green tanks, holding the oil that has been transported across the country.

If the expansion takes place, 13 will become 26. When I read on the Kinder Morgan website that the tanks are green to minimise their ‘appearance’ on the landscape, I can almost hear Kanahus laughing in my head.

Right outside the terminal, is Camp Cloud, the base for the protest. We meet ‘Digs’ (he doesn’t want to tell us his real name), and he shows us around the camp, where people are living, eating, and sleeping.

The activists tell us about a huge razor-wire topped fence in the water around one of the terminals, and claim to have seen birds injured when they land on it. They are concerned that it will impact marine life, particularly whales.

The activists believe the fence has been put in to disrupt protest. Kinder Morgan calls it a “floating construction safety boom” and suggests it is there to protect workers and marine waterway users.

The frontline

There have been attempts by the police to move Camp Cloud along, and there have been arrests. The activists are perplexed that Camp Cloud is being considered an obstruction, and yet the razor-wire topped marine fence, or the oil pipeline itself, is not.

“Why the f**k do you get to decide what an obstruction is?” says one of the activists.

This pipeline affects so many people, from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation land turned over to tar sands, to the Tiny House Warriors defending Secwepemc Territory, to the Tsleil-Waututh Nation right across the water from where the pipeline ends.

There are countless others along the way. I have met only a tiny proportion of the people impacted by one industrial project, and can only begin to imagine the scale of how indigenous communities are affected by the global demand for energy.

So often it is these indigenous people standing on the front line, leading the way, and risking everything to protect the planet on which we all live.

It is difficult to witness the hurt and destruction caused by industry, but seeing beauty in places like Little Shuswap Lake is an inspiration, and a reminder of why so many people are dedicating their lives to climate action.

This Author

Katie Dancey-Downs writes for Lush Times. Read more about the Indigenous Climate Action women fighting for Mother Earth. This article is part of a new content-sharing arrangement with the environmental, animal rights, and social justice news channel The Lush Times.