Kanahus Manuel is a land and water defender, tattoo artist and traditional birth keeper belonging to the Secwepemc and Ktunaxa Nations of the south-central interior of so-called British Columbia. Kanahus is also a member and founder of the Tiny House Warriors movement.
Kanahus Manuel spoke with Amnesty International Canada’s campaigner Elishma Noel Khokhar on November 29, 2023.
What brought you to defending the lands and waters and the rights of Indigenous, women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people?
I was born into it.
This work was led by my father Arthur Manuel and before him, my grandfather Grand Chief George Manuel. This work is also being led by the women in my family – by my grandmother, my sisters, and aunties. They (are lived) experts of childhood sexual trauma and intergenerational trauma that stemmed from the Indian residential school system, the impacts of which, continue to this day. My mom was also a victim of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ (MMIWG2S+). When she was a teenager, she found her mother violently murdered in their own home.
At a very young age, I learnt the impacts of colonization and our realities as Indigenous women in Canada. Eventually, I learned that Indigenous women deal with the same issues around the world. My mom was raised by her great grandmother at Neskonlith. This meant that she was still raised with her language and culture and that is what kept her strong. Being rooted in our culture allowed my family members and I to be strong and become examples in our community for the younger generations as language teachers, healers, nurses and through other important roles.
Can you share the experiences of Indigenous women, Two-Spirit and gender diverse defenders on the frontlines?
It is hard work and dedication to be on the frontlines.
Most of our leadership comes from women. The people who are on the frontlines, who are fighting back against industry and its bulldozers are mostly women, grandmothers, spiritual people in their ribbon skirts. Indigenous women including myself, my aunties and my sisters are courageous because we are standing up and fighting back against a predominantly male industry. When we fight back, we face violence.
I have spoken up against Imperial Metals, a corporation that is known for the largest gold-copper mine tailings spill disaster. I experienced targeted attacks from Imperial Metals workers because they were aware that I was organizing against the mine tailing spill.
My twin sister, Mayuk Manuel was also attacked by Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMX) mining camp workers and security personnel. She is experiencing permanent physical damage because of these attacks, and we have filed a lawsuit against TMX.
As Indigenous women defenders, we are not only facing a violent industry but also thousands of transient male industry workers. When Tiny House Warriors were organizing against the Trans Mountain Pipeline man camp workers at Blue River, there were originally about 1500 men in the camp. During COVID-19, the plant and associated camp were shut down.
After COVID restrictions were lifted, the numbers reduced to roughly 550 men. That is still a big concentration of transient male industry working population. If you talk to anyone in the vicinity, they will tell you what happens when you assemble such a big concentration of male workers in one place. Instances of substance use based violence, domestic and sexual violence increase in the areas where ‘man camp’ workers are housed.
Violence is perpetuated not just by industry, but also by the Crown and the judicial system. These systems are not protecting Indigenous rights, human rights, or the earth. They are protecting industry by making money for the Government of Canada and bringing more investment into the country.
When there are systems that do not care about Indigenous rights and human rights, they are going to try to get rid of us. They are trying to do this by criminalizing Indigenous peoples, by using disinformation and smear campaigns when Indigenous peoples are actually upholding Indigenous and human rights.
Violence is perpetuated by all these entities. It is the whole society. This is why we are experiencing the highest rates of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in the country. These statistics demonstrate how we are viewed as Indigenous women to the extent that we could go missing and murdered and nothing would ever be done. We are not given the same privileges as a white Canadian woman walking down the street. A white Canadian woman could walk down the street with a yoga outfit on and nobody’s going to touch her. If an Indigenous woman walks down the street with a yoga outfit, she would be assaulted. This is our reality.
What is your message for us during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence and beyond?
The work that land and water defenders are doing is selfless work, it is hard work, it is 24/7 work. We need relief, support, and assistance. We need researchers, lawyers, fundraisers, grant writers. We need childcare and drivers. We need financial resources, to help fight cases, to keep Indigenous people free from criminalization and prisons and to help provide for those who are on the frontlines. With a little bit of help we can advance our movements, actions, and missions tenfold.
Indigenous peoples, supporters, allies, and all people who care about the planet have collective intelligence. To protect the planet, Indigenous rights, human rights and our women, girls, and families, we must come together and work collectively. We cannot do it alone.– Kanahus Manuel
What gives you strength? What keeps you going?
My faith, the creator, our ancient ways, our medicines, and our ancestors who continued to fight and never gave up. They fought hard for us to be here. Now it is our turn to leave something for our next generation.
We are still here. We are surviving. We will never give up fighting for our land because we are an endangered species. Our languages, food, and culture all are endangered. We fight so hard because we are fighting for our very existence. We will continue to raise our children and grandchildren and continue to fight until we have authority over our lands. Until we can eat healthy food, live in our traditional homes, speak our languages and exercise our culture freely as self-determining Peoples.
It empowers me to think of all the Indigenous land and water defenders that are not just here in the so-called Americas, but around the world. Their strength, endurance, courage, and dedication empower me.
This is what empowers me to continue every day.