Solar Panels and Sisterhood

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This is not a protest story.

There’s a reason why women who sleep on fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago prefer to be called observers, not occupiers. And there's a reason why the women leading the tiny house movement in the path of the $7.4-billion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline prefer to be called pro-life rather than anti-anything else.

The small army of women providing sustainable solutions to current climate crises across Canada say they have no choice, but to stand up in solidarity, to protect the land, water and future generations.

These women are sleeping on fish farms, hiking up their skirts to rip out anti-spawning mats in streams and flying across the country to install solar panels on tiny houses they built in the face of resource-extraction projects that they say threaten everything they know to be sacred.

Chapter 1

From Alberta to B.C.

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A group that calls themselves the Tiny House Warriors have been building environmentally friendly and culturally relevant tiny houses on Secwepemc territory, 50 km east of Kamloops. They plan to build the ten homes right on the path of the controversial proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project that is set to run through their land and waters.

Yesterday, celebrated Indigenous rights educator and founder of Lubicon Solar, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, joined the Tiny House Warriors. Massimo, who grew up in the oil sands region in Alberta, traveled from her home territories, to help the group of mostly First Nations women solarize their tiny homes.

One of the tiny houses on Secwepemc territory on Nov. 1, 2017. Photo by Greenpeace Canada

After Massimo's success installing solar panels in her own community, she set out to help train other Indigenous community members to do the same.

“By harnessing the power of the sun, we’re telling Kinder Morgan and the Trudeau government that our energy systems can help nurture life instead of destroying it,” said Kanahus Manuel, one of the main tiny house warriors, a Secwepemc Indigenous rights advocate and birth worker.

Kanahus just returned from a European divestment tour where she met with Swiss banks, encouraging them to divest from the Kinder Morgan pipeline and where she spoke with insurance companies who were considering funding the expansion project.

She traveled with the Secwepemc Risk Assessment in hand, a document created by the Indigenous Network of Economies and Trade (INET). INET is a platform developed by her late father Arthur Manuel, who worked tirelessly for years to advocate for Indigenous propriety interests and tribal economics.

In Paris, Geneva and Zurich, Manuel and Cedar George-Parker from Tsleil-Waututh Nation informed potential Kinder Morgan investors of the risks and uncertainties of investing in projects on their unceded territories, she told National Observer.

“The issue of title has to be addressed,” she said. “There is no consent for the pipeline to go through our territory. The government is in violation of international Indigenous and human rights laws, and the laws of the Secwepemc people.”

Chapter 2

Canada in violation of human rights?

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After Canada and three other countries opposed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), in November 2010, the government issued explicit support for the principles. It wasn't until May of last year that the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs announced that Canada would fully support the declaration.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been vocal about the federal government’s commitment to implementing UNDRIP and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 94 calls to action.

So what exactly does "support" for UNDRIP and committment to the TRC's calls to action look like on the ground?

For Kanahus Manuel, the pipeline expansion promises to devastate 518-km of unceded Secwepemc territory, violating her Nation's human rights and going back on promises to uphold the TRC. Of the 46 articles included in UNDRIP, six discuss a government's obligation to seek consent from Indigenous Nations whose lives and lands may be affected by decisions, she said.

Section two of article 29 states: "States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or ter- ritories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent."

The 92nd of all 94 calls to action in the TRC states:

"We call upon the corporate sector in Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms, and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources. is would include, but not be limited to, the following:

  1. Commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects."

Since Trudeau announced Canada's late support for UNDRIP and publicly advocated for the TRC's calls to action, critics say he has weakened his position and that he has abandoned his promise to seek Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

But Manuel said the women-led Tiny House Warriors will not wait for politicians or courts to decide their fate and the fate of their children.

“We’re looking at our own solutions for this energy crisis,” she said. That’s why she called Melina Laboucan-Massimo, member of the Lubicon Cree Nation. Massimo expected the call and had planned to solarize the tiny houses as soon as she heard that the community was planning to have them built.

“The project is a way to solarize Indigenous communities and allow communities to replicate renewable energy models,” Massimo said over the phone, while still hanging around the Secwepemc community.

In an ironic way, the Kinder Morgan expansion project connects the Indigenous women.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline moves crude oil, refined and semi-refined products from Alberta to the B.C. coast and the expansion project would take the pipeline from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of oil a day. Tanker traffic would rise to more than one tanker per day through Vancouver harbour. On November 19, 2016, the federal government approved the project, despite strong opposition from affected First Nations communities and environmental groups.

For both Manuel and Massimo, it's obvious why it's Indigenous women at the front lines of these renewable energy solutions. Women are inherently implicated in climate change, they say, and there’s no choice but to take action.

Chapter 3

"We see what the future holds for our children"

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“I’m a traditional birth-keeper. I attend births, the most powerful ceremony,” Manuel said. “It’s the mothers, caretakers, nurturers in our Nation who are standing up, because we see clearly what the future holds for our children.”

Massimo agreed, adding that although she thinks all Indigenous people are connected to the land, Indigenous women have traditionally been water protectors.

“The first home for any human being, in the woman’s womb, is water,” she said. “We are closely connected to the impacts we see on the land. As women, we create life within our own bodies and we want to protect our homelands and future generations, because we have an inherent innate connection to the creation of life.”

So what does it mean for women to protect life under threat from environmentally dangerous projects? For activist Anushka Azadi, it means hiking up your skirt and getting the job done.

Last week, Azadi and a group of supporters were so disturbed by the news that Kinder Morgan had put anti-spawning mats in rivers and creeks without authorization, that they decided to rip them out themselves. The company has described the mats as an "innovative use of snow fencing protecting spawning salmon and trout." The National Energy Board has said that the company's actions appeared to be a violation of the law.

In an email response, Kinder Morgan Transmountain media relations said the team installed the mats to protect spawning fish ahead of migration periods, as a part of their "commitment to build the project in a way that minimizes impacts to the environment."

Azadi said in a phone interview that the mats did the opposite of protecting salmon, but disturbed their natural migration. They had to be removed, she said.

It was essential for the group to receive permission and protocol from Secwepemc elders, who told them that they "should do what needed to be done to protect wildlife in their territories," Azadi said.

Twice, Azadi drove through a cold October night on the last week of the month, slept for an hour, woke up and followed their hand-made maps to locate the anti-spawning mats that the National Energy Board (NEB) has publicly condemned.

The company said they have since withdrawn request to the NEB to install the additional mitigative measures and will be "re-assessing these specific water-crossings and determining if we need to adjust our construction methodologies to meet our commitments to minimize environmental impacts."

“The mats mess up all of the spots where the salmon would come down, because they were cutting up their bellies," Azadi said. "One of the runs we pulled a mat from was a Chinook salmon run. The Chinook feed the killer whales and are good for pregnant women."

Azadi said as soon as she saw the mats, she took her shoes off, hiked up her skirt and rushed into the cold water. Over two days, Azadi and a small crew of supporters removed 7 mats from Albreda River and Swift Creek and on October 31, she brought one of them to Vancouver for a Fisheries and Oceans Canada consultation meeting on wild salmon policy, to make sure that everyone concerned knew about their impacts.

Photo of one of the anti-spawning mats Azadi and group removed on Oct. 30, 2017. Photo by Anushka Azadi

Poster put up by Kinder Morgan although the NEB said the company's actions were unauthorized. Seen on Oct. 29, 2017. Photo by Anushka Azadi

“It has to be women,” Azadi said of her decision to take matters into her own hands, literally. “Everything has been led by men for so long, and look at what has happened and how much destruction that has caused.”

Chapter 4

Women at the front-lines and behind the scenes

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Karissa Glendale joined Azadi, Manuel and Massimo in saying there was little choice when it came to leaving her regular life behind to protect wild salmon, the key-stone species of the Pacific West Coast.

Glendale has been living on fish farms in the traditional territories of the 'Namgis Nation, located in what is known as the Broughton Archipelago since the occupation began at the end of August.

She said the people posted at the fish farm sites prefer to be called observers, rather than occupiers. Glendale doesn't think their actions should be considered anti-farms, but pro-life, pro-salmon, pro-future generations, and that so-called activists get a bad reputation for their actions.

“We’re observers,” she said, explaining how their primary purpose was to observe Norwegian-owned Marine Harvest fish farm activities on their unceded territories. Glendale and the crew of mostly women on the Midsummer Island Marine Harvest fish farm have also adopted solar panels and tiny houses.

“We recently got our wood stove hooked up,” she explained over the phone, in good spirits. “We brought some wood out there and now we’ll be able to stay warm and dry throughout the time we’re here.”

Inside one of the tiny houses built on the Midsummer Island fish farm site. Nov. 1, 2017. Photo courtesy of Karissa Glendale.

Glendale built the cookhouse on site, and supporters helped build another tiny home, bunk-beds and floors. All of the group’s electronics, including a land-based radio are hooked up and charged in the house, from solar panels.

Glendale said it’s women at the front-lines of the cause, but it’s also women holding it down behind the scenes, flooding the observers with support, organizing boat rides, food and supplies. She said nothing that what she and other salmon advocates were doing would be possible without women constantly working at home, to provide food, adequate clothing and supplies, to check-in, write media releases and organize.

Women are holding it down at the front-lines, but they're also hard at work behind the scenes, she said.

“For me, women hold a lot of strength,” she said. “We’re the life-givers, so we really know that it’s our future kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews futures that we’re fighting for. It’s a now or never situation."

Editor's note: This article was updated at 3 p.m. PT on Nov. 3 with comments from Kinder Morgan Media Relations.