Along the shores of Blue River in unceded Secwepemc territory in so-called British Columbia(BC) , Canada, there is a group of Indigenous folks building and living in tiny houses, solarized, built to be mobile, and adorned with vibrant murals that portray powerful Secwepemc stories. These women are the Tiny House Warriors and they have built and moved these tiny houses on to their traditional territory in order to actively block the construction of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline and a man camp that is planned to house 1000 pipeline construction workers. I share this story as a powerful example of a transformative strategy that has been forged on the frontlines of Indigenous resistance to extractivism in Canada; Indigenous communities are putting the solutions, the beautiful alternatives, in the pathway of extractivism. They are fiercely resisting unwanted and unjust projects while exemplifying a much better way forward – ones based on respectful relations with each other and with lands and waters.
The Tiny House Warriors are among many other Indigenous communities putting the solutions in the pathway of the problem. The Healing Lodge and permaculture gardens at the Unist’ot’en camp opposing the CGL pipeline, the Treaty Truck House at the Mi’kmaw protest camp against Alton Gas in Nova Scotia, and the Watch House on Burnaby Mountain are all examples of Indigenous communities building low-carbon, ecologically sensible, culturally-grounded alternatives and placing these alternatives strategically to block a proposed oil and gas project that is being pushed into their territories. These alternatives are offering inspiration by making clear that there are other ways to organize our lives and to build economies. These alternatives are being forged as both resistance to colonialism and resurgence of Indigenous economies, governance structures and ways of life.
Resistance and alternatives can’t work in isolation
I wrote about this strategy in my recent book More Powerful Together: Conversations with Climate Activists and Indigenous Land Defenders as among the most powerful forces for transformative change in Canada right now. The book is based on interviews with movements folks across the country. In my previous RED article, I presented the kinds of alternative futures these activists and land defenders I spoke with are envisioning and working hard to bring about. My article underlined their emphasis on the need for both resistance and alternatives in waging transformative change. However, a lot of the time the folks working on building the alternatives and those resisting the destructive systems are working in isolation from each other. What about this intersection, that the Tiny House Warriors exemplify, where the resistance and the alternatives meet? We need to be asking ourselves: How we can resist in ways that raise up the values and relations we are fighting for? And, how we can build alternatives in such a way that they actively help stop the destruction?
To explore these pressing questions, I draw on my new book and the many conversations it is based on. And I also draw on a panel discussion that I organized and moderated in June 2019 called Strategies for Transformation: Bringing Together Resistance and Alternatives, featuring Leah Temper, a Transformations scholar, Jaydene Lavallie, an Indigenous land defender, and Kanahus Manuel, co-founder and resident of the Tiny House Warriors. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4Hb2jPJi0Q)
During the discussion Kanahus told us the story of the Tiny House Warriors. Coming from a long line of Indigenous leaders and land protectors, Kanahus has been organizing the resistance to the proposed TransMountain (TMX) pipeline, which if built will cross over 500 kms of Secwepemc territory transporting bitumen oil from the Alberta tar sands to the BC coast for export. She and her community resist this project on many bases: the threat of oil spills to their land and water; the climate impacts it poses; the blatant violation of Indigenous rights to free, prior and informed consent; the increases in violence against women – especially Indigenous women – that accompany the industrial man camps; and the further theft of Secwepemc land.
Kanahus explained that the Tiny House Warriors, “are movement people who have committed their life to defend our lands, to defend our rights, to fight for our rights. These women that I am talking about, they are in it for a lifetime. I mean, our lives are being threatened. And our title to our lands is being threatened. And every time we let another corporation and the government get away with usurping more land, stealing, taking away access to our lands, every time they take from us, we lose more of our lands and territories”.
The TMX is the most recent in a long line of unwanted development projects, from mining to ski resorts – that industry and the colonial government have tried to force on to Secwepemc land. But this one involves a huge area of their territory. She told us, “we knew we needed to be active on the line – a big geographical area where we are fighting. And we knew we needed to resist on the ground because we knew there would be other people doing political strategies, legal strategies, but for us, being the warriors, we know that we need a frontline. We know we need to be on the ground confronting this pipeline for any political or legal strategy to have any power. Being on the ground is really important.”
The “Tiny House” – A metaphor and a movement
Inspired by the Tiny House Movement, an architectural and social movement that promotes living a simpler life in a smaller space, Kanahus and the “Secwepemc Women Warriors” came up with the idea to build up a front line from a series of 10 tiny homes. In so many of these fights, she explained, it had been far too easy for police and industry to come in with machines and bulldoze the structures they had built to house themselves as they defended their lands and rights. And so, the mobility of tiny homes was a benefit. With the pipeline spanning a long line of their territory, the people knew they would need to resist in many locations. And so arose the idea of multiple tiny homes, each strategically placed. Kanahus explained that as the tiny homes get built and brought to a strategic location along the pipeline route, they “will be homes for our people and we’ll put [our] homes and bodies on the line to stop this construction … families stopping this pipeline.”
Another benefit of the tiny houses is that they have garnered a lot of attention from the public and the media across Canada and the world. Kanahus explained that, “this gives us protection on the front line, because the Canadian state, the corporations, they know that they can’t just attack us. Because people are watching, people are bearing witness, to these amazing homes that are going out on to the frontline. It’s an emotional fight, because we are fighting for our lives. We have a lot of support. People feel it … We’re not going to let Canada and BC bulldoze another house. We’re not going to let them bulldoze our sweat lodges, we’re not going to let them arrest people in our community, our elders, our women, our youth, our hunters and our fishermen, and get them tied up in court for years and years, and meanwhile the pipeline is getting built”.
“An environmental justice movement that offered alternative, meaningful livelihoods, that would be powerful” . A Quebec based climate justice organizer
Alternatives as Resistance
The Tiny House Warriors are demonstrating inspiring alternatives on many levels. Firstly, tiny house living is an alternative to the wasteful consumerist lifestyle. As Kanahus explained it “Tiny houses are about minimizing our imprint on the earth, it’s about downsizing, about decluttering our lives, questioning how we live and what’s important for us … Because you can’t bring everything into a tiny house … we have to minimizing our waste, really looking at what we buy. Your consumption and your waste become a big conversation when you’re living in a tiny house”.
Tiny house living is also about autonomy as an alternative to state dependence. She told us that by living in tiny houses, off the grid, equipped with solar panels and not dependant on the state for energy, water and other basic needs, “your mind starts to become free, because you’re not being controlled by the state, you’re not dependant on the state for your electricity”. She went on to explain that “we wanted to build solutions because …. Well, you hear the youth saying ‘down with the system’, but what I hear Elders saying all the time is that we just need to turn our backs on the system. And go to a different way, back to our way … We turn our backs and that system is going to fall, because we don’t depend on it anymore”.
But, Kanahus also made clear that “more than anything, ” Tiny House Warriors” is about “how we need to return to the land”. Reconnecting to the land is at the heart of the alternatives that the Tiny House Warriors are demonstrating. Kanahus described their camp at Blue River: “It is very beautiful. There are lakes, rivers, Mountain Caribou. There are bears, there are deer. Living in these tiny houses has been a very healing experience. Because it’s about being on the land. That’s our motto ‘Our Land is Our Home’. And when we go onto our land, we can go where we want. That is what our title and rights are. We have a right to build a fire where we want, to feed our families. We have a right to put our home and rest our children wherever that may be”.
“By building solutions, we’re showing our people that we love them, that we care for them” – Kanahus Manuel
My book and the conversations that it’s based on all emphasize that Indigenous alternatives are the most promising solutions to the mounting climate and inequality crises. “Across Canada and around the world, based on close ties with and fierce love for people and land, Indigenous communities are resisting destructive development. They are “defending relational territories and worlds against the ravages of large-scale extractivist operations” (Escobar 2018: 67). Indigenous relational ontologies that centre reciprocity and respect offer alternatives and indeed the counter-force and antidote to extractivist worldviews (Kimmerer 2013; Simpson 2017; Klein 2014). “The economic alternatives these movements are proposing and building are mapping ways of living within planetary boundaries, ones based on intricate reciprocal relationships rather than brute extraction” (Klein 2014: 451). What is needed is for many more people to cultivate worldviews “embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy” (Klein 2014: 462)” (Excerpt from More Powerful Together)
The Tiny House Warriors are showing us that alternatives do not need to be new. During the panel discussion, Leah Temper, too, made clear that “alternatives can also be a defense of the existing ways of life. It can be reclaiming”. And to Kanahus as well, “alternative doesn’t mean going to a new way, for us it means going back to our ways. And our ways are going to teach so much to the world”. Where non-Indigenous people need to innovate and create new systems and life-ways if they are to live in just and sustainable ways, Indigenous Peoples have existing knowledge, practices and systems that are being reinvigorated. In this way, the work of building alternatives is different for settlers than it is for Indigenous Peoples.
Alternatives don’t need to be new, but they do need to be radical. By this, I mean, they need to dig at the roots of the crises – and aim to transform the structures and systems driving them. Understanding of the root causes, the systems of domination and the world-views that underlie them, opens up the possibilities for much more transformative solutions and alternatives. Solar panels, carbon pricing and reconciliation apologies will not transform colonial capitalism. We need to be able to envision radical alternatives to this. We need our movements to align around a shared commitment to give up on the stale idea of making our existing systems work better, and instead tackle the deeper power structures – the economic and political systems that keep reproducing unjust and unsustainable relations and outcomes.
There are no “economic laws,” and as such there is nothing inevitable about capitalist economic relations: “We make our economies, and therefore we can make them differently” (Miller 2012: 12). Unfortunately, the mainstream climate solutions presently on the table in Canada do not seek to transform capitalist relations nor relinquish colonial control. If anything, they are designed to maintain these systems. Part of this is due to the vested interests of the people designing the solutions and making the decisions. And part of it may be due to people’s inability to envision viable alternatives. Colonialism and capitalism are so ingrained in Canadian culture that it can be hard to see beyond them, to see that they are not inevitable.
“In my work I have come to understand that you need to work to fight to dismantle the state or you need to build structures that are completely outside of it”. Jaydene Lavallie
It is the work of our social movements to do better, to raise up radical alternatives – ones that are firmly anti-capitalist and decolonial. And, to offer strategies and solutions that address the multiple intersecting crises we face and transform the systems driving them. In the book, I wrote about what I refer to as Intersectional Solutions and Direct Action Solutions. “Many of the solutions or alternatives that are being enacted currently in Canada address only one problem or one dimension of a problem. For example, solar energy systems being installed help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from household energy use, but do they create local employment? Do they help reduce poverty and racism?”
“How can we design alternatives that help address as many forms of injustice as possible? Often solutions and alternative are being innovated and practised on small scales, away from urban centres and in cultural niches. To scale these up and render them more powerfully transformative, solution innovators must look beyond their niches and be on the front lines so they can ensure they are doing their work in the service of those most impacted. I see permaculture practitioners providing labour and materials to help construct infrastructure at pipeline blockades. I imagine permaculture water treatment systems being installed on First Nation reserves that haven’t had clean drinking water in generations. Think of radical mycologists practising myco-remediation, using mushrooms to clean or transform toxic soil, in communities of colour dealing with the alarmingly high levels of toxic pollution from environmental racism. I see engaging high school students to help provide the labour necessary to do this kind of ecological remediation on a big scale and to train a new generation in how to build just and sustainable systems. These kinds of solutions and alternatives can be refined and scaled up to the point where they become sources of revenue for the local community”.
The strategy of putting the alternatives in the path of the problem, of building solutions on the frontlines is so powerful because it helps ensure that the visions, values and needs that inform the design of the alternative are grounded in the realities of the people most impacted by the current crisis, rendering the alternatives radical by design. Furthermore, the urgency of the climate crisis means we do not have the time for people creating and practicing solutions off in safe niches. There is too much at stake and too much being destroyed, everyday. For the solutions to be useful, they need to be deployed and tested on the ground and put to the service of the frontline community efforts. For the alternatives to be transformative, they need to help with the work of disrupting, dismantling, and displacing the colonial capitalist systems. While blockades and other spaces of resistance help create opportunities to, as Leah put it, “practice other worlds and put other ways of being into place”, we need those peoples focusing on building alternatives to reciprocate by dedicating their solutions to the benefit of those on the frontlines.
A final point to be made about radical alternatives is that the era of climate solution that ignore Indigenous rights needs to end. Indigenous sovereignty and the return of land back to Indigenous Nations is crucial if Indigenous alternatives are to flourish and guide the transformation away from extractive, exploitative economies and towards much more just and ecologically viable ones. As Dene scholar Glenn Coulthard wrote “For Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in Indigenous alternatives to it”. While it is Indigenous People who lead these alternatives, there is no shortage of ways non-Indigenous people can actively support Indigenous resistance and alternatives.
Sharing the costs of resistance.
By asserting their rights and title and enacting their own economies and political systems, Indigenous Peoples have enormous power. But precisely because of this power, they are facing incredible backlash and repression. The role for non-Indigenous people in this transformative movement is to bear witness, to not allow violent repression to be hidden from the public eye. And, our role is to actively support Indigenous resistance and alternatives materially. As settlers in a settler state, we have more access to money, to decision-making power and to media. We need to be actively mobilizing this power to actively support Indigenous frontline struggles and their beautiful alternatives.
Connecting the dots. In this article, I’ve argued in different ways for the need to connect the dots – across crises, across strategies, and across movements. Kanahus too emphasized this need for deeper connections. In speaking about the Tiny House Warriors, she said, “We’re here to put these homes here, but we’re here to bring a message and to unite with people who believe in alternative building and food security and food sovereignty and decolonization. It’s going to take a lot of people connecting these dots, and our minds are going to expand. It a collective knowledge we have. And all together this collective knowledge is really powerful”.
“It’s going to take a lot of people connecting these dots, and our minds are going to expand”. Kanahus Manuel
Jen Gobby is an activist-scholar who works closely with communities and social movements to do action-research that aims for transformative change towards social and environmental justice. She organizes with Climate Justice Montreal, is a member of the steering committee for Concordia’s SHIFT Centre for Social Transformation, and is the founder of the MudGirls Natural Building Collective. She completed her PhD at McGill as part of the Economics for the Anthropocene partnership and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment .
Escobar, A. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Klein, N. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Simpson, L.B. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Coulthard, G.S. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
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