In celebration of this upcoming Earth Day on April 22, we are excited to be creating this series in collaboration with Earth Day Canada. The theme of this year’s celebration was launched yesterday, and is centered around eco-anxiety and turning that feeling into action. As such, we created the “Every Day Eco-Heroes” series to shine a spotlight on environmental activists who have used their own eco-anxiety as fuel for the passion they have about the environment, as well as turned these feelings into action.
The first activist we would like to shine a spotlight on is someone a few of you may already know, but who deserves to be recognised by all in Canada, as well as globally. This person is Autumn Peltier. Peltier is from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Being born and raised here, Peltier was surrounded by the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. Growing up in such an environment allowed her to understand the importance of freshwater and why we must protect it. When she was just eight years old, Peltier attended a ceremony at Serpent River First Nation in Ontario with her mother. It was at Serpent River that Peltier first noticed signs warning of ‘toxic’ drinking water. Water contamination on reserves has been an issue for years at this point, and one that the government, despite making promises, still have not been able to address. In an interview from 2019 with Women of Influence she recounts her mother explaining that for over ten years this community has had a boiled-water advisory, and the shock that made her feel. In an interview with Maclean’s, Peltier says that this ceremony was an eye opener for the work that she does.
Peltier also drew inspiration from her Aunt Josephine Mandamin, stating in the 2021 interview with Macleans that prior to her passing, Josephine asked that she continue with her work. “Carrying on her legacy is one of the most important things to me,” stated Peltier. Josephine Mandamin, also known as “Water Walker” was a founding member of the water protectors movement, a founder of the Mother Earth Water Walkers, and Anishinabek Nation Chief Water Commissioner. It is through Mandamin as well as her mother that Peltier was inspired to take action, saying “I advocate for water because we all came from water and water is literally the only reason we are here today and living on this earth.” In her interview with Macleans in 2021, Peltier was asked what the best piece of advice she had received from Mandamin, stating it was just before she passed when she said, “‘People are going to try to stop you, but you just have to keep on doing the work and keep on loving the water.’ And she was right. It was her saying that that helped me realize that I can’t let people get to me.” With such influential people surrounding her from her youth, it is apparent why she has been so inspired, as well as commendable for continuing on their legacy.
(PHOTO: IREVAPHOTOGRAPHY LINDA ROY OF WIIKWEMKOONG UNCEDED FIRST NATION, MANITOULIN ISLAND ONTARIO, source: FashionMagazine.com)
Due to the influence of her Aunt Josephine and mother, Peltier has been an activist from young, which I find to be greatly inspiring personally. Can you remember what you were doing at age 12? The first instance in which Peltier was thrust into the spotlight was in 2016, at the age of 12, and a moment which I’m sure a few of you remember. This was at the annual winter meeting of the Assembly of First Nations where at such a young age, she showed more courage than most grown adults, directly criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to his face, saying “I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made,” to which Trudeau responded “I understand that. I will protect the water.” In her 2021 interview with Macleans, Peltier addresses this moment and the action that has been taken by the Prime Minister since. In this interview she states that the moment was not planned, and that she had actually been told not to say anything to the Prime Minister, as she states however, not many people are given the opportunity to share their thoughts with him, and she had to take that opportunity. Since then, the Trudeau government promised to end all water boil advisories across Canada by March, 2021 – a promise that was not met. In response to this, Peltier said “To promise to resolve a big issue like that within a certain amount of time and [not do it], and there are still communities that can’t drink their water after over 25 years, how are we supposed to trust the government? How are we supposed to believe him? I feel he pretends to care.” When asked what Trudeau could do to regain this trust she responded by saying rather than making empty promises or simply speaking on the issue, that action is actually taken. As you can see, sadly much hasn’t changed in government since then, but neither has Peltier’s persistence and determination to enact these changes.
Since 2016, much has changed for Autumn Peltier. As of 2019, she was named the new “water walker” or Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, a role she took upon the passing of previous water commissioner, Josephine Mandamin, her aunt. When asked about her appointal, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare said that it was a very easy choice to make as “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.” Additionally, Autumn has given many inspiring speeches. The first of which was in 2018 where she was invited to speak at the Global Landscapes Forum in New York City where she directly addressed the UN and other important decision makers. During this address, her passion for water protection was thoroughly conveyed with quotes such as “We can’t eat money or drink oil” being quoted globally. Peltier was invited to speak at the United Nation Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York in both 2018 and 2019. In 2019, Peltier shared the stage with a fellow youth activist I’m certain all of you know, Greta Thunberg. This speech in 2019 saw her gaining a large following, with her instagram growing from five thousand to over one hundred thousand after the event, allowing her voice to be heard across the globe and inspire thousands.
Recognition is not what Peltier strives for, but rather action, however she has received numerous awards over the years that have resulted in more people being aware of her efforts, and as such supporting them. Some of these awards include being at the top of the Maclean’s 20 to watch in 2020 list, as well as being named as the only woman in the BBC Top Women of 2019. Peltier was also nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2017, 2018, and 2019, also being named a “science defender” by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2019. Most recently, Peltier was awarded the 2021 RevolutionHer Community Vision Youth Award for her work as the Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation.
Autumn Peltier is an inspiration to me not only because of how young she began her activism, but also due to her persistence and passion for water protection over the years. While many become jaded in the face of environmental concerns and often lose motivation, Peltier has continued to advocate bravely, never afraid to stand up for what she believes in. As touched on in the 2021 Macleans interview, the COVID pandemic has shown that in emergencies, funds and resources are able to be mobilised readily – a frustrating fact for Peltier as these same funds can clearly be allocated to the current drinking water emergencies being faced on reserves.
We hope that by learning more about Peltier and her advocacy you too feel this frustration about the inaction of the government, and that you turn this frustration into action and advocacy. This Earth Day, call in sick to work and make your voices heard about water rights, and of course, all environmental rights. Stay tuned for next week’s continuation of this series, highlighting another, lesser known environmental activist deserving of our recognition.