Tiny houses, enormous statement

The Secwepemc Nation and their supporters are building tiny houses to assert their land rights in the face of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline

Construction on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline is due to start in B.C. any day, but another construction project is already underway along its path: members of the Secwepemc Nation and their supporters have begun building tiny houses. With one complete and a second underway, the Tiny House Warriors plan to build 10 houses to assert their jurisdiction over the unceded lands the pipeline will traverse.

This is an ambitious but logistically feasible act of resistance, since the houses can be built in a short period of time, put on wheels, and transported to remote locations. It is also a beautiful one: tiny, off-grid homes symbolize a way of living that problematises consumption and, in the rural locations for which these ones are destined, put domestic life in a relation to land which is strikingly modest. As the Tiny House Warriors put it, "land is home".

Despite their rural setting, these tiny houses reveal a surprising connection between indigenous land claims and urban environmental politics. This connection resides in the contrast they establish between two very different ways of relating to land. In cities, where most land is transformed or concealed, we tend to see our surroundings in terms of property. This turns land into a volume of space or set of boundaries between which we are permitted to do what we please. So we seek out the largest houses or apartments we can afford and attempt to contain everything we need within them: not only spaces of shelter, repose and food preparation, but also appliances and tools to enable domestic tasks, entertainment, communication and, increasingly, social contact. Our daily activities need not be connected to the land.

This makes it hard to see how the land contributes to our health and the quality of our lives, or how it could contribute to our sustenance, social relations and opportunities for cultural expression. We mistake things like the quality of our ground water, the air we breathe, the character of the soundscape and the diversity of other beings who live among us, as questions of a narrowly environmentalist concern, which are then susceptible to being opposed to other problems, such as unemployment or poverty. When land is not home, but something abstract or elsewhere, solutions to environmental problems are insurmountable, because they seem to depend on an impossible coordination of individual actions--all of them inconvenient or expensive. 

Worse, this relation to land prevents us from seeing how, not only is a pipeline a future threat to the food and water sources of the Secwepemc people, it is an invasion and denigration of their home, before anything goes wrong. The invisibility of urban land enables us to underestimate or disregard the extent of the injustices faced by First Nations communities across the country. It also makes it hard to see how concrete problems — such as water quality, poverty and escalating suicide rates — arise out of and are sustained by government-enabled acts of dispossession. The Secwepemc houses remind us that these acts of dispossession — not just of land, but of the practices, social relations and meanings it sustains — are not past, but ongoing. And while it may be too late to give back much of what has been taken away, we don't have to keep taking; we can stop building pipelines or extracting resources where those activities are not welcome. If we did, we would be one very important step closer to re-building the conditions for equality and mutual respect between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. We might also find we have the impetus for inventing new ways of relating to land, even in the city.

In my urban neighbourhood, many people have small vegetable gardens. While homegrown food is more sustainable and meaningful than food bought at the grocery store, its production is constrained by the treatment of land as property. Not only is the yield small, it is only available to people who have sunny yards or balconies. If however, we saw land as something collectively held and valued, then we could cultivate, not only gardens, but also those spaces that contain, or could contain, fruit and nut-bearing trees, berries, mushrooms, and a myriad of edible weeds. If we did that, things like car exhaust, pollution from lawn chemicals and laws against trespassing would become problems of immediate collective importance, regardless of the inconvenience or short-term costs of addressing them. We might also find that, in order to access and sustain urban food sources, we need to invent ways of communicating and sharing across social and cultural difference. Ways of working on the land, in other words, would become ways of working on our ourselves.

Ultimately, tiny houses built in the path of an unwanted pipeline are a powerful symbol of resistance, but they also invite us to reflect on the fact that the destruction wrought by a pipeline is due both to ways of living that perpetuate its apparent necessity, and the fact that those ways of living help to conceal the extent of its impact. This makes us all responsible for putting an end to their construction, but it also suggests that in taking that on, we might at the same time begin to see a way forward with respect to certain apparently intractable urban problems. While land may never be home for city-dwellers the way it is for the Tiny House Warriors, respecting that relationship is a step towards a more just and sustainable future for us all.

Erin Despard is a landscape critic and historian living on Abenaki land in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Photo: Ian Willms/Greenpeace Canada​

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