Autumn Peltier at Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve, Manitoulin Island. Photo by Linda Roy.
– by Bruce Mason –
Standing in the international spotlight, Canada’s Autumn Peltier is throwing water in the face of humanity, as it sleep-walks toward nightmarish extinction. But the degree to which we will be shocked and awakened to reality depends on comprehending her story, as well as her unique, bracing message.
“It is almost like we don’t realize or believe climate change is real,” says the 15 year-old chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek, a political advocacy group for 40 First Nations across Ontario. “The focus is on money and I’ve said it once, and will again: we can’t eat it, or drink oil.” That is at the core of what she has been sharing in multiple speeches at the United Nations and hundreds of international events as a clean water activist, for half of her young life.
Her work has earned wide-ranging accolades. In 2018, she was awarded the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers by Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, and has lately found herself on rosters of notable people: BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women; the Huffington Post’s “15 Canadian Icons Who Stole our Hearts”; the Union of Concerned Scientists Science Defenders; Chatelaine’s “Women of the Year” (2019); and Maclean’s “20 to Watch in 2020”.
Her voice is among the exponentially growing chorus of global youth activists fighting for environmental justice – and chastising so-called leaders for inaction, hypocrisy and ecocide. “I don’t want your awards. If you are going to award me, award me with helping to find solutions and helping to make change,” she recently told the World Economic Forum’s 50th annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. She was flanked on-stage by fellow teen activists, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, Natasha Mwansa from Zambia and Salvador Gomez-Colon of Puerto Rico.
“Youth are standing up because we’re actually experiencing climate change. A lot of us are scared, wondering if we even have a future. Something is wrong if we have to speak up. We should just be, being kids.
“I go through a lot of bullying because of what I do. That’s probably the only barrier that’s making me not want to do this anymore. But it’s essential to show people what we’re struggling with and fighting for, yet still not being heard. Maybe we need to have more elders and youth together sitting at the table when decisions are made about our lands and waters.”
Autumn Peltier belongs to the Wiikwemkoong First Nation. She lives in unceded territory on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world off the north shore of Lake Huron, quite literally surrounded by the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth.
At eight years of age, during a water ceremony on a nearby reserve, she recalls: “I went to the washroom, and all over the walls, I read: ‘Don’t drink, or touch the water,’ ‘Not for consumption’ and ‘Boil water advisory.’
“I had no idea what the warnings meant,” Peltier remembers. “I later discovered that water contamination was all across Canada and the world, from Six Nations in the Grand River, to Flint, Michigan and far beyond.
“Water is a basic human right, yet there are children born into a world living off bottled water, delivered to their homes. I can’t even imagine what it is like to be dependent on it. No community should be on a boil water advisory. Children shouldn’t have to grow up not knowing what it’s like to drink from a faucet, or shower, or wash their hands.”
She is following in the footsteps of her late great aunt, Josephine Mandamin, an internationally recognized water rights and Indigenous activist who founded Mother Earth Water Walkers. “She walked thousands of miles around the Great Lakes, more than once, inspiring and motivating me to do this work, not expecting that day to come as soon as it did,” says Peltier. “Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth,” she tells UN delegates and everyone else who will listen. “We all have a right to this as we need it and it should not be for sale.
“What means the most to me, what I am learning and sharing, is the Sacredness of water. Nothing can survive without it. Ancestors have passed on oral knowledge that water is alive, and has a spirit.
“Our first water teaching comes from within our own mother. We literally live floating in water for nine months. Flowing within us is original water from time immemorial. Our ancestors drank it, thousands of years before us. It evaporates and turns into mist, fog, rain, clouds and snow; can go and be anywhere, surrounding us, connecting to everything else.” Autumn Peltier first made headlines in 2016, after being invited to give a gift to Justin Trudeau. Instead she gave him a message. “I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made endorsing pipelines, and endangering communities,” she told him publicly, through frustrated tears. “I’m going to hold you accountable for your broken promise to provide clean water to everyone by 2021.”
The Council of Canadians notes that at any given time, at least 100 First Nations are under water advisories, including the Neskantaga First Nation where residents have been without clean drinking water for 25 years.
“Canada isn’t a third world country, but here in my country, Indigenous people live in third world conditions. Why so many boiled water advisories and why have they gone without for so long?” she asks.
Canada is also the fourth-largest producer of crude oil and the fifth-largest producer of natural gas in the world, spending billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies and incentives. Where climate is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. And with 0.5 percent of the Earth’s population, where projects are being contemplated to use up nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget.
Indigenous people are vital to preventing ecological destruction and climate catastrophe. The UN’s top climate change body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has determined that without rights for Indigenous people, climate change will most certainly get worse.
“I’m going to be talking about water protection on a spiritual and cultural level, coming from traditional knowledge of elders, talking about what we can do, solutions on how to protect clean water and keep what water we have now safe,” Autumn Peltier insists.
“My aunt advised me: ‘Don’t let anyone stop you. And don’t care what people say, just keep on doing the work.’ So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
“One day I will be an ancestor, and I want my descendants to know I used my voice. If you have an idea or a solution, or a way you can help, just do it.” Autumn Peltier is urging us all to “Warrior Up” and take a stand for our planet.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.
Linda Roy is an Anishinaabe photographer from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. (firstname.lastname@example.org)