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The Trudeaus vs. the Manuel family: Another generation fights over Indigenous rights

Political dynasties draw both respect and derision – to some, they’re evidence of icky, unearned nepotism while to others, they demonstrate a noble handing down of public responsibility. In either case, they can lend needed personality to the bureaucratic bog of policy making, so take a minute to consider the Trans Mountain pipeline debate through the lens of a well-entrenched family feud.

On one side is Justin Trudeau, the first Canadian to follow in a parent’s prime ministerial footsteps: During his 15 years on the job, Pierre Trudeau blazed a path as the first cerebral show boater from Quebec. On the other are the Manuels, an Indigenous family less likely to be named in classroom textbooks, but equally set on having a political voice. The two families have been on opposing sides of Indigenous self-determination struggles for decades and the acrimony is flaring up again this hot summer.

The current issue is that 500-kilometres of the Trans Mountain pipeline crosses the traditional territory of the Secwepemc, a 17-band nation in the British Columbia interior to which the Manuels belong. Only four of those bands have signed mutual-benefits agreements with Kinder Morgan: Uncertainty about the rest of them is partly why, in late May, the younger Mr. Trudeau’s government announced it would buy the pipeline for $4.5-billion, so that the plan to twin it won’t be foiled by protesters.

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Those protesters include the Tiny House Warriors, two members of which are sisters Kanahus and Mayuk Manuel. Since last fall, the group has been building small wood-frame houses – the first was 144 square feet and paid for with $5,000 from Greenpeace – with the goal of placing 10 of them along the pipeline route as livable homes, with solar power and compost toilets.

Kanahus Manuel.

Ian Willms/Canadian Press

On July 11, the Tiny House Warriors set up on an ancient Secwepemc village site in North Thompson River Provincial Park, blocking the main road into the area. Three days later, Kanahus Manuel was arrested and charged with mischief. She was released the same day, after signing a waiver stating that she wouldn’t re-enter the park.

The group then moved a bit northeast, near the Blue River, a proposed settlement of hundreds of Trans Mountain workers. For years, Indigenous people have resisted such “man camps” in their communities: In 2016, an Amnesty International report linked them to an increased risk of sexual assaults in northeast B.C. "What I say to Trudeau is that he’s going to be responsible for the violent attacks against Indigenous women,” Ms. Kanahus said in a phone interview from the site this week.

If Mr. Trudeau truly learned politics at his father’s knee, he should know the Manuels are persistent. The families first found themselves on opposing sides in 1969, when the newly elected Pierre Trudeau Liberals unveiled their infamous White Paper, an attempt to fold Indigenous people into the Canadian whole, eliminating all historical treaties and turning Indigenous land into bought-and-sold (or, for real estate lawyers, fee simple) property.

Fighting the White Paper initiated a generation of Indigenous activists, including George Manuel, grandfather to Kanahus and Mayuk. He went on to become president of the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) and helped start a global movement that eventually led to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In 1980, George helped lead the Constitution Express demonstration, during which thousands of Indigenous people showed up in Ottawa to demand treaty rights be included in the new Canadian Constitution – and succeeded.

The most well-known Manuel is Arthur, George’s son, whose legacy includes an overnight occupation of the Indian Affairs office in Ottawa, also during P.E.T’s time. His legion of accomplishments (as well as many of his father’s) is detailed in his 2015 book Unsettling Canada, which shows that one intergenerational Manuel skill is drawing international attention to the issue of Indigenous rights in Canada.

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Though neither man is now alive, their progeny are still constantly reaching beyond this country’s borders with their message: This year, Arthur’s son Ska7cis Manuel has met with European insurance companies that have invested in Trans Mountain to explain why lack of Indigenous consent on unceded lands puts the project at financial risk. And these are just the noisiest Manuels – other members of their family have been activists for decades, too.

Kinder Morgan says work on the pipeline will start again this August, and Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly promised to put his political weight behind making sure all goes smoothly. If the past half-century is any indication, the Manuels are ready to push back from the other side.

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