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Autumn Peltier: ‘Water Warrior’ for Marginalized Communities

Environmental activist Autumn Peltier attends a session at the Congres center during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 21, 2020. |  FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
Environmental activist Autumn Peltier attends a session at the Congres center during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 21, 2020. | FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Fifteen-year-old water protector Autumn Peltier, Anishinaabe-kwe, comes from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, Canada. It was there, after observing that Indigenous people on the island could not drink the water in their communities, that she began her fight for clean water. 

“It all started by learning why my people couldn’t drink the water on Ontario Indigenous lands. I was confused because Canada is not a third-world country, but in my country, the Indigenous people live in third-world conditions,” she said when she addressed the United Nations Global Landscapes Forum in September 2019. 

Peltier was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize by the David Suzuki Foundation in 2017, 2018 and 2019. She was also recognized as an Ontario Junior Citizen for her environmental advocacy work and won a WE Day award for Youth in Action when she was 12. She has shared her message at hundreds of events around the world and has been dubbed a “Water Warrior” for her continued activism.

The Niagara River is seen west of the river on May 26, 2018 in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. | Photo by Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The Niagara River is seen west of the river on May 26, 2018 in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. | Photo by Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2016, she famously confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his failure to protect Indigenous people’s water at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in 2016. She was just 12 years old when she told him, “I am very unhappy with the choices you made.” Through tears, she added only “the pipelines,” to which Trudeau responded, “I will protect the water.” 

In her U.N. speech the following year, Peltier explained that boil water advisories have existed in some Indigenous communities in Canada for over 20 years. She also mentioned learning about Flint, Michigan and other marginalized communities’ struggles to obtain clean water around the world.

Peltier’s passion comes, in part, from the tradition in which she grew up. Her great-aunt, Josephine Mandamin, served as the chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation, a position Peltier took on when she was just 14. In her 2019 U.N. speech, Peltier described the spiritual significance of water to her people.

“For years and years, our ancestors have passed down traditional oral knowledge that our water is alive and our water has a spirit,” she said. “Our first water teaching comes from our mother. We literally live in water for nine months, floating in that sacred water that gives us life.”

During her first U.N. speech in 2018, Peltier urged the general assembly to “warrior up” and take serious steps to defend the planet. In 2019, she called for a banning of plastics and a return to older, more sustainable ways of life.

"We can't eat money or drink oil." she said.

Top Image: Beaded Panel, late 1800s. Northeast Woodlands, Great Lakes Region, Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) or Nehiyawak (Cree) People?. Glass beads on wool; overall: 38.9 x 11.4 cm (15 5/16 x 4 1/2 in.). | Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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