Kanahus Manuel stands at the Tiny House Warriors encampment in Blue River, British Columbia. [Tupac Saavedra/AJ+]

By Sharmila Venkatasubban

For the past four years, a small group of Indigenous land defenders, who call themselves the Tiny House Warriors, have been fighting a massive pipeline expansion in Canada. And they’ve faced violence to do it.

The Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from Alberta to just outside of Vancouver, will triple Canada’s ability to carry crude oil across the country by building a new line alongside the existing one. However, half the current pipeline runs through territory belonging to the Secwepemc Nation – land that Canada’s Supreme Court admits the nation never ceded through treaties.

Twin sisters Kanahus and Mayuk Manuel, who are Secwepemc, co-founded the group, and they see asserting their right to the land as both a struggle and a way of life.

Since 2017, they’ve traveled up and down the pipeline’s construction route, from Edmonton to Vancouver. The group makes the journey in tiny wooden mobile homes they call “battle tanks,” because they provide shelter and protection for the activists.

In their attempt to challenge the construction, the Tiny House Warriors have clashed with pipeline workers and police, and faced violence, arrests, criminal charges and convictions. During one clash last year, a pipeline worker knocked Mayuk to the ground and pinned her there, and Kanahus says police broke her wrist in another incident in 2019.

Throughout, though, the Tiny House village, a camp located in Blue River, British Columbia, has served as a safe space and cultural refuge – a place where they can teach their traditions to younger generations.

After AJ+ senior producer Tupac Saavedra interviewed the sisters for a recent documentary, I followed up with them to learn more about their efforts to assert Aboriginal rights to the land. Here are the main takeaways from our conversation.

Fighting forced assimilation, land theft and abuse

First Nations communities have faced a long history of oppression and colonial violence in Canada, which government officials have said amounted to genocide.

For over 100 years, the Canadian government ran residential boarding schools, where at least 150,000 Native children were forced to assimilate and subjected to systemic abuse. And just last year, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that over 1,000 Indigenous women and girls were murdered between 1980 and 2021 – a rate 4.5 times higher than that of all other women in Canada.

“Our blood grandmother, my mother’s mother, was murdered … so we’ve dealt with this [history] of murdered and missing Indigenous women. It was a part of our family,” Kanahus said, adding that their mother suffered from clinical mental health issues as a result.

But it was this intergenerational trauma and the desire to heal it that led the family to organize, they said.

“In the ‘80s, our aunt began educating counselors and therapists about the effects of the Indian residential school on our family system,” Mayuk said. Kanahus, Mayuk and their siblings are the first generation in their family to not attend these schools.

The sisters’ father, Arthur Manuel, also helped lead the movement to assert and secure Aboriginal rights to the land and develop economic strategies that would support Indigenous cultural life outside of the policies of the Canadian government.

It’s also the reason why they’re resisting resource extraction projects like the pipeline. They’re not opposed to economic development, Mayuk says, but they want “good economic development that honors Indigenous people.”

A resource for their nation

Volunteers designed and built the half-dozen tiny houses in their encampment, Kanahus said, and most of their funding, which varies from year to year, comes from a nonprofit that supports development projects for Indigenous communities.

Community members clean and maintain the camp of seven full-time residents, provide emotional support for one another, and teach cultural practices and history to younger people. Over the years, the camp has housed up to 30 people, including children.

“We [are a resource] for our nation when it comes to traditional food harvesting, medicinal practices, birth practices,” Kanahus told me. “At different stages of our lives [we were able to provide] 90% of traditional food harvest and organically grown foods. We got enough salmon to feed our children in the winter months until the next salmon run. And then we can freeze and smoke the salmon. But because the [current land defense work] really requires us to be on the ground doing 24-hour security, it doesn’t allow us to go pick huckleberries for two weeks straight.”

But it’s their goal to become fully self-sustaining so that their movement can thrive. “You can’t ask for independence, you can’t have an army with your hand out at the same time,” Kanahus said. “We go into their stores not because we want to but because we have to until we can live independently on our land.”

The land, bodies and trauma

“We believe in the land being our mother,” Mayuk said. “It’s not a simile or a metaphor. It’s … a reciprocal relationship, where we gave to the land, not just took, and our mother sustained us for thousands of years. Our land has generated more wealth for Great Britain and Canada than any other. Our land is one of the most wealthy lands in all of the world.”

And for the Tiny House Warriors, the body, as much as the land, is at the center of this centuries-old conflict over the territory and the right to self-determination, Kanahus said. The body is where they hold multigenerational trauma as well as the power to move past it.

To this end, their activism also focuses on healing practices, which include a ritual of dipping themselves in the coldest creeks along the mountain range, inking ancestral tattoos across their faces and arms, and braiding their children’s hair. These practices ensure that they don’t pass the pain they’ve experienced on to future generations. “We don’t want to hurt our family members with the trauma Canada gave to us,” Mayuk said.

Resistance tactics designed to heal, not provoke

Kanahus clarified that the sisters and the rest of the group don’t consider themselves protesters. “The majority of our work is to get our inherent right to self-determination recognized on the ground,” she says. “This is really important because what we’re doing, when we’re out there, is a healing strategy.”

“The worst form of trauma you can experience,” Mayuk added, “is the paralyzing fear of not doing anything.”

To learn more, watch AJ+’s full documentary, “Canada’s Other Rebellion Is Being Fought By These Women,” on YouTube.


You might also enjoy

By bi94h