Climate activists you should know: Autumn Peltier

Illustration by Dewey Saunders

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Name: Autumn Peltier

Age: 17

City: Ottawa, Canada

Area of Focus: Water protection and Indigenous rights

“I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made.”

At the First Nations’s annual winter meeting in 2016, Autumn Peltier was supposed to give Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a water bundle as a gift.

The 12-year-old was scheduled to deliver a speech at the event, too. But when Peltier came face-to-face with Trudeau, she couldn’t stop herself from directly expressing her disappointment.

“I said, ‘I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made,’” Peltier recalled. “And he said, ‘I understand that.’ And I started crying and all I got say after that was, ‘The pipelines.’”

Nation Observer

He made a big promise to me, which was: “I will protect the water.” I was 12 at the time, I am 17 years old now, and I’m still holding him accountable to that promise.

Peltier is a powerhouse in Canada’s Indigenous rights movement.

A member of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation, Peltier has said she was raised in a traditional lifestyle.

From a young age, Peltier was close to water, having grown up on the shores of Lake Huron. She learned early on how to care for the water and the environment.

One of her greatest influences in life was her great-aunt Josephine Mandamin. Also known as Grandmother Water Walker, Mandamin served as the Anishinabek Nation chief water commissioner until she passed in 2019.

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[My aunt] shared with me that our first water teaching happens inside our mother’s womb. We live in her waters for nine months and when the water breaks, new life comes. She also told me that when we are born women, our role is to protect the waters as we are the ones that bring new life into the world.

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Following her great-aunt’s passing, Peltier was named chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation at only 14 years old. In this role she “provide[s] advice for Anishinabek Nation leadership and citizens on water and Great Lakes management issues,” the organization said.

Appointing someone so young might seem startling to outsiders. But Nation Ground Council Chief Glen explained that it was a no-brainer:

“Autumn has extensive nibi giikendaaswin (water knowledge). She has been bringing global attention to the water issues in our country for a few years now.”

Peltier’s focus extends beyond pipelines.

Opposition to pipelines tend to gain the most media attention when it comes to Indigenous protests. But that’s not where Peltier’s work ends. She’s also very vocal about resolving all boil water advisories in Canada.

There are hundreds of advisories in place across Canada — some long-term — which mean the available water is not safe to drink without boiling. The Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario has had a boil water advisory since 1995.

In 2015, Trudeau promised to end all long-term water advisories by March 2021. It still hasn’t happened.

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To promise to resolve a big issue like that within a certain amount of time and [not do it] . . . How are we supposed to believe [Trudeau]?