Autumn Peltier: a long walk for First Nations’ water rights
Indigenous communities in Canada are fighting for their right to safe, clean drinking water. Anishinabek Nation chief water commissioner Autumn Peltier tells Karen Thomas why
Water has shaped Autumn Peltier’s life and her destiny. Peltier grew up on Manitoulin Island, Lake Huron. Manitoulin is the world’s largest freshwater island. It is so vast it has lakes of its own. But some Indigenous communities there lack safe, clean drinking water.
Canada is a land of lakes and rivers. It is famous for its water quality. Yet many First Nations communities live under drinking-water advisory notices, some dating back two decades. It’s why Peltier’s aunt Josephine Mandamin founded the water-protectors movement, an Indigenous-led campaign to demand respect for water.
An Anishinaabe elder, Mandamin walked 25,000 miles around the five Great Lakes to protest about water inequality and pollution. She carried a copper water bucket, to symbolise her duty of protection, and sang and prayed as she walked.
Traditionally, women were the First Nations’ keepers of water. Mandamin’s Mother Earth Water Walks movement revived an ancient connection and inspired a new generation of female Indigenous activists.
Peltier became a water advocate aged eight. “At my first water ceremony it struck me that kids my age and younger had no idea how it would be to open a tap and drink a glass of tap water,” she recalls.
“The mothers were washing their babies with bottled water. That’s so wrong. In a first-world country like Canada, it’s unacceptable.”
Peltier’s poise and gift for public speaking stood out. In 2016 the Assembly of First Nations chose her to present a ceremonial copper water bowl to prime minister Justin Trudeau, to remind the new premier of his duty to protect water. Trudeau had just approved two fossil-fuel pipelines.
“I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made,” tiny, 12-year-old Peltier told him. “The pipelines.”
Then she burst into tears.
A star was born.
Three years ago the Anishinabek Nation appointed Autumn Peltier chief water commissioner. What you may not know is that she’s terrified of water.
“I really don’t like deep, dark waters,” she says. “I fell into the lake when I was very little. It was so deep and dark and scary. Even though I grew up surrounded by water, in a community that is based on water, I have a fear of water. I’m happiest on the shore, in the shallows.”
It’s a surprise confession, across five time zones and 3,500 miles as the crow flies. We meet – on Zoom, of course – shortly after Peltier, now 18, finished her school exams. By the time you read this, she will be at college in Ottawa, starting a degree in Indigenous politics.
Officially, we are talking about The Water Walker, a short film that follows Peltier from Manitoulin Island to a United Nations meeting in New York, where she urges the United Nations to protect Indigenous people’s rights. Unofficially, The Environment has lobbied long and hard to meet Peltier, the leading water advocate of her generation.
At least 100 Canadian First Nations communities have no clean, safe water. It’s a long-term problem across Canada. Dozens of Indigenous communities have lived for more than a year with boil-water advisory notices.
It stems from colonialism, Peltier says. Canada’s 630 First Nations communities are scattered across vast geographies, living on poor land near polluted waterbodies. “We got the leftovers,” Peltier says. “Our reservations were put on the worst pieces of land. Our water is polluted from old uranium mines and landfill sites.”
Access to safe, clean water is a human right under international law. In 2016 UN officials slammed Canada’s “restricted access to safe drinking water and to sanitation by the First Nations and the lack of water regulations for the First Nations living on reserves”.
That year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a 92-page report that exposed Canada’s water crisis. It found 85 First Nations reservations living with long-term drinking-water advisories, a problem that dates back “for decades” in Ontario.
Canada has “failed to meet a range of international human-rights obligations towards First Nations people and communities”, HRW concluded. Provincial and territorial laws that guarantee safe drinking water and sanitation for most Canadian citizens “do not extend to First Nations reserves”.
Canada’s unequal water rights became an international scandal. Trudeau’s premiership campaign promised to tackle the problem within five years.
Since taking office, Trudeau has approved new oil and gas projects – hence Peltier’s angry tears – and revived a 1977 treaty to stop the US shutting down a pipeline across the border. His March 2021 deadline to tackle the water crisis has been and gone. First Nations communities say nothing has changed.
“More than 100 communities are still advised to boil their drinking water – some for more than 20 years,” Peltier says. “Water justice means no more broken promises from government. Indigenous people have a long, long history of broken promises.”
Canada’s First Nations also live at the sharp end of climate change. Smallholders struggle to raise crops and livestock against more frequent floods and droughts. Seasonal patterns have shifted in the Arctic. These, post-Covid supply-chain problems and global food-price inflation add to pressures on Indigenous Canadians.
Peltier comes from seven generations of chiefs. She became an activist on her aunt’s knee. “Auntie Josephine taught me so much, about how Canada sweeps Indigenous people under the carpet,” Peltier says.
“First Nations people face racism and discrimination. She taught me to use my voice as a young, Indigenous female; to speak up and to be strong.”
As chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, Peltier speaks for 40 Ontario First Nations. Campaigning for clean, safe water comes at a personal cost. The Water Walker shows Peltier in private, sometimes struggling with frustrations, bullying and exhaustion that young activists know well.
Different people find diverse sources of strength. Greta Thunberg calls her autism a superpower. Vanessa Nakate draws on her Christian faith. What keeps Peltier going?
“My superpower comes from being an Indigenous person,” she says. “Native Americans are stoic and strong. And that’s who I am too. That’s where it roots.
“My aunt talked to me on her deathbed. She told me not to let people bring me down, not to stop – to keep loving the water and loving what I do. She’s mostly the reason I keep going. Because this work can be hard.”
Roots to land and people keep Peltier grounded. That, and weightlifting. She lifts three times her own bodyweight to unwind. Studying in Ottawa keeps her close to friends and family. When she graduates, she’ll enter Indigenous politics.
“I’ve been doing this for eight years and nothing has changed,” she concludes. “I don’t want to be doing this until the day I die. As a chief I can make things change – that’s my end goal. Canada slips First Nations issues under the carpet. I want to bring attention to these issues, to racism.
“First Nations people are part of a continuing conversation.”
The Water Walker is touring world film festivals and available on Crave: https://www.crave.ca/en/tv-shows/the-water-walker