In conversation with Kanahus Manuel — A woman of many names

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Kanahus Manuel said she loves the land like she loves her children. And she fights for them just the same. Photo by Aziz Dhamani

Story by Emilee Gilpin

Kanahus Manuel has been called many names — a political activist, a pipeline protestor, a tiny house warrior, a freedom fighter, a traditional birth keeper, a tattoo artist, a land and water defender. But Manuel, also a granddaughter, daughter and sister, identifies herself first and foremost as a mother.

In a phone interview, Manuel's voice sounds as strong and ancient as the land she has dedicated her life to protecting. But her words also reveal a tender heart.

"People can judge the tactics, what our people are doing, but we know what we’re doing is right when we say we’re standing here to protect our children’s water and for those yet unborn. That’s our tribal law," she tells me. "As women we know it, because we birth these babies."

It is with this motherly power that Manuel continues to fight day in and out, to protect her traditional territories, her people’s rights to these territories and the rights of all Indigenous peoples. Manuel has never stood alone in the struggle — she grew up with some strong teachers.

Manuel's grandfather George Manuel was the president of the National Indian Brotherhood, now the Assembly of First Nations and one of the co-founders of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, dedicated to the recognition of Indigenous rights worldwide. Manuel's father, Arthur Manuel wrote The Reconciliation Manifesto and Unsettling Canada and started the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade organization.

Kanahus Manuel grew up learning about her Secwepemc tribal laws and the Canadian government's laws.

She has made news in recent weeks and months due to her opposition to the troubled Trans Mountain oil pipeline and tanker expansion project.

I managed to get a hold of Manuel, where she was sitting surrounded by three of four of her children in one of the mobile tiny homes camped out near Blue River, a small B.C. community surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, halfway between Kamloops and Jasper. I asked her about her recent arrest, an upcoming Kinder Morgan shareholders meeting regarding the government's offer to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline assets on Aug. 30, the main reasons she is opposed to the tanker expansion project and whether she has hope for the future.

Here’s what she had to say.

Chapter 1

Trans Mountain pipeline update

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"The liabilities are us as Indigenous peoples"

Q: Where are you now?

A: I’m sitting right now at the Tiny House Warriors village here to stop construction of the Blue River man camp, which is at the top of the list for construction.

Q: We know that Canada has (offered to) purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline...

What does this mean to you?

A: We know that Canada purchased the project. They’re trying to finish this transaction. The government never purchased the assets, they purchased the legal entities, which means they also purchased the liabilities. The liabilities are US as Indigenous people.

After the Delgamuukw decision, the province of B.C. had to include Indigenous peoples in their liabilities on their financial statements. Because they’re recognizing, that it’s a contingent liability. They’re recognizing there’s some sort of assets, contingent assets. What is that? Our title to our lands? We are the liability right now, when it comes to this pipeline project, and that’s why we believe Canada purchased it — to ensure the whole global investment community that business as usual will continue to happen, no matter how much Indigenous opposition there is.

On Aug. 30, we’re going to Calgary, to the shareholders meeting. This is where they’ll meet and vote about whether the shareholders agree that this purchase is going to happen. It has to go through the motion of the shareholders meeting. There will be Indigenous delegates from this pipeline resistance and representatives to confront the shareholders.

Q: The government announced that the Trans Mountain pipeline (expansion) construction wouldn’t start until Aug. 25. Have you witnessed any construction happening yet?

This highway is massive busy — so busy with every type of heavy machinery, pipeline, pipeline fittings, generators, you name it. It’s going up north right now. We’ve been able to do some of our own monitoring of our areas. There’s an area of concern right now — of the already-existing pipeline. There’s crude that has already spilled, but they’re trying to cover this up, they don’t want anybody to know about it. The only way we know is because we’re doing our own monitoring of the pipeline corridor.

An undated image at the top of this chapter features construction activity by Trans Mountain. Handout photo supplied by Trans Mountain

Chapter 2

Her arrest

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Manuel said she learned from her grandfather and father to "get organized" or "be exterminated out of existence." Photo by Aziz Dhamani

"I signed under duress."

Q: You were recently arrested from North Thompson River Provincial park. What happened? How long were you detained?

A: The reason they evicted us and arrested me out of that North Thompson (River Provincial) Park is because right now, the province, Kinder Morgan, Canada, Ian Anderson (President of Kinder Morgan) are applying for parks use permits, to bring the pipeline through all the BC Parks along the pipeline corridor, starting from Mt. Robson.

After I got arrested on July 14, BC Parks put out a press release on July 24 saying they transferred their permitting process to be online. So they’re making it really accessible for Trans Mountain to apply for these parks use permits, by the new online system, which we say is mysteriously convenient now for Trans Mountain.

They’re applying for the permits under the radar from public scrutiny. Especially now when there’s hundreds of people that are traveling this corridor between Jasper and Vancouver, through all these parks. They’re putting letters of request into the province of B.C. for these land use permits, to bring this pipeline through.

North Thompson provincial park is a five minute drive south of Clearwater. We occupied that spot for seven days. On the seventh day the RCMP came to arrest me and said they got a call from the park rangers that said I didn’t abide by an eviction order they had given me on the Thursday. They held me for around seven hours and released me on conditions. I signed under duress.

I had to decide whether to stay until Monday or get released (by agreeing) to remain 50 metres from North Thompson River Provincial Park.

Kanahus Manuel said it’s a form of genocide when the Canadian government forcibly removes Indigenous peoples from their land. In this sound clip, she speaks about evidence of Secwepemc territories and of her people living the territory they are currently defending.

We had a long relationship with the colonial government up here in the north at this Yellowhead Pass, because this Yellowhead Pass really opened up through the Hudson’s Bay Company. From 1800-1804, it’s documented there was 300 Haudenosaunee and Mohawks from Kahnawake who had contracts with the HBC here. They were calling it Trans Mountain even then, in the Hudson’s Bay Chronicles. In the 1800s, they talk about the Secwepemc village sites they came across. There are documents of our people.

Chapter 3

Violence against women

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Kanahus Manuel marches with other women to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on January 18, 2018. Photo provided by Kanahus Manuel

"When you start quantifying the impact of this industry, it's sick."

Q: One of the major threats that you have spoken publicly about before is the believed threat that the pipeline construction will pose on neighbouring communities. You have called the construction sites ‘man camps’ and have shared research and voiced concern about increased violence on women and girls particularly. Can you explain?

A: Right now, I’m in Blue River. Blue River is along Highway 5, the pipeline corridor.

I’m across the Highway 5, right at the location of the proposed KM (Trans Mountain expansion) man camp, here in Blue River, which proposes to house 1,000 men. There’s a big area, around 14 acres of land or so, all the way to the Blue River, very pristine clear water from the glaciers.

We say that the first man camps were the Hudson's Bay camps and the highway camps, railway camps, that are still bringing violence against Indigenous women. We say Indigenous women were the most vulnerable in our society, the most over-policed and the most under-protected, and then we have the highest rates of unsolved murders and missing women in the world — tens of thousands of indigenous women and girls in databases across the country that have disappeared.

The links to bringing men together in these super camps, away from their families and without any community accountability, sometimes drug, violence, alcohol, it all increases, as does the sex trade, which becomes rampant.

We have a Secwepemc Women's Declaration Against Kinder Morgan Camps.

There’s over 5,000 people, all of the major native organizations and women’s rights signed on. Right now it’s scary, because the way they’re starting to quantify the increased violence is that with every industry truck that gets on the road, the rapes increase, because they say it’s five men in one truck.

When you start quantifying the impact of this industry, it’s sick.

Chapter 4

The assertion of rights and title

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Kanahus poses with her twin sister Mayuk in early March. Photo by Sarah Anne Johnston

"They have become very wealthy, Canada, and B.C., off of non-recognition of our title."

Q: The majority of what is known as the province of British Columbia is also considered unceded territories, meaning, as you know, that the majority of First Nations haven’t signed treaties with the government. Do the Secwepemc have a treaty with B.C.? How are you going about establishing your rights and title to your traditional territories?

A: We’re not going to participate in anything that’s not involved in the recognition of our title. We need 100 per cent of our title to be recognized, on the ground. My father would always say, we hold that radical title, we hold that underlying title. Whether the Crown assumes it’s Crown title or fee simple (common law land ownership) title, that rests on top of our already-existing title that we have never given up or extinguished.

What these modern day land agreements want to do, is to extinguish that underlying title and grant us back fee simple title, like any Canadian can own and sell. We’d eventually pay taxes and be like any Canadian. And that’s what we call assimilation. And assimilation is a form of genocide.

They want to assimilate us into becoming a regular Canadian.

This exterminates and terminates more of our rights and our title to our land. In my grandfather’s time, they were using the phrase self-government, but it meant self-determination. Now the government has co-opted that term, self government, and they’re trying to convince Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) federal bands that the self government was what our grandfather was talking about. But really, they’re trying to transfer you into a municipality-style governance, based on taxation, so that government can wipe their hands and never have to compensate us, recognize our title, and continue to reap the benefits of non-recognition.

They have become very wealthy, Canada, and B.C., off of non-recognition of title. Aboriginal title and rights exist, stated in the Constitution. No matter when we go to Canada and to the courts. Even when they side with Indigenous people, they want to make it site-specific, that’s what the Tsilhqot’in decision said, but it’s actually the title, not just the site-specific area. It’s the land. It goes deep.

Manuel speaks about the importance of being "on the ground" and asserting their Indigenous rights and title.

We’re not going to sleep on our rights — we’re going to go out there, pick berries, hunt, fish, live on our lands. Live and build and have our homes on the land. They haven’t said anything to us and we’ve been here for a month.

Chapter 5

What about the economy?

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Manuel looks out on her traditional Secwepemc territories earlier this summer. Photo provided by Manuel

"We’re going to start breaking new ways of economic thinking."

Q: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has continuously said that this pipeline is in Canada’s best interest and by that, we understand that we are speaking about the economy. How do you counter that argument? Do you believe the expansion project will strengthen Canada’s economy?

A: When we’re talking about the economy, there’s one thing my father and his organization - Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade (INET) - always said. We talk to these economists that have been helping us draft these risk assessments and briefs, and looking at different factors, like the test the government uses in injunction cases of the balance and conveniences.

They never look at our Indigenous economies as being of value.

In 2009, Kinder Morgan Canada went down. In 2001, they sold their company to themselves... to give a value to it. That’s how they were able to sell their company for $4.5 billion and make a 600 per cent profit. They created a value for themselves to begin with. That’s the economic way of this capitalist system.

They’ll never look at the value of a tree as a relative. Their value is cutting it up and making something from it. It’s a different view on values. We’re going to start breaking new ways of economic thinking. We have other ways of thinking of our spirituality, food… Natives have spearheaded a lot of things. People will look at Indigenous economies and the way we look at our own economies.

When you look at our territory, it was like 180,000 sq kilometres, but we have huckleberries and salmon. It was a reciprocal relationship with the land. We invested tens of thousands of years to increasing the value of our land. We pruned bushes, burnt mountains, invested in our land.

We have to change the way we look at economics, in order for people to say the pipeline isn't of great economic value to our people. This pipeline is going to decrease the value of this already-existing Indigenous economy. That’s the way we need to start looking at the economic benefits, whether it will be a benefit or not.

We see Indigenous peoples and all of these nations starting to look at their food security and food sovereignty. That’s building Indigenous economies and putting a value to our own Indigenous economies.

Q: It’s a difficult question because I have seen it used as a way to divide and conquer Indigenous Nations, but I do want to ask what you think about the First Nations communities and leaders that have expressed support for the pipeline or other resource extraction projects.

A: There’s either the right way, or the wrong way.

You either respect our Indigenous laws and responsibilities to protect our lands for those yet unborn, or you don’t respect it. When people don’t respect our Indigenous laws, our Indigenous men, some women, but men and women begin to violate our own laws.

They will be tested when the time comes.

When their time comes and they meet our ancestors. That’s when the real judgement happens. People can judge the tactics, what our people are doing, but we know what we’re doing is right, when we say we’re standing here to protect our children’s water and for those yet unborn. That’s our tribal law. As women we know it, because we birth these babies.

Chapter 6


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Kanahus Manuel stands with her auntie Ida Manuel, younger sister Snutetkwe Manuel and their children. She speaks into a microphone standing on the bridge over the Fraser River headwaters in her traditional Secwepemc territory. Aug 23, 2018. Photo provided by Kanahus Manuel

"Resistance comes in many forms."

Q: It’s a difficult and complicated time, especially I imagine for folks on the front lines of certain battles. Do you have hope for the future? How do you remain hopeful?

A: It’s all the young people. All the young people that saw Oka as children. They saw Idle No More, Standing Rock, the young people of that fighting warrior age. The able-bodied that will go out and take action, to learn their language, to decolonize ourselves more out of the system. It will be the young people — the tech generation, the baby boom, the hip-hop artists, those in theatre and acting, doing amazing things, UFC, NBA, Native people inspiring the next generation. Resistance comes in many forms, it’s not just putting on a mask and facing off with the police and corporate development.

Kanahus speaks about the forms of resistance that give her hope for future generations.

The transcript of this interview was edited for clarity.