Photo by Linda Roy of Ireva Photography
For most of us, the biggest thing we were rallying for at 15 was an extension on our curfew or a new outfit — but Autumn Peltier is not your average 15-year-old. Newly appointed as the Anishinabek Nation chief water commissioner, Autumn has already spent years advocating for water protection in First Nations communities, and around the world. Sharing the message of the sanctity and importance of clean water, Autumn is making some serious waves — from her debut global speech at the Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden in 2015, to last year’s address at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
I first became interested in water protection when I was… 8 years old, when my mom took us to a water ceremony in Serpent River First Nation, Ontario. I noticed that there were signs all over the walls that read “Not for Consumption,” “Do not use for handwashing,” “Boil water advisory.” I had a hard time wondering why I had to use hand sanitizer and not the water to wash my hands. Then I asked my mom why can’t the people drink or wash their hands with the water here? And what does a boil water advisory mean? So my mom explained to me what it was, and that the community had been on boil water advisory for over 10 years. I was pretty shocked. I looked at the small children running around from the community, and how they had no idea what it was like to use running water, and I was so sad to have to imagine living off of an amount of bottled water per household. The next few days after that I did my own research and discovered that many First Nations Communities in Ontario were on boil water advisories for years. I thought Canada was a resource-rich country, and that we shouldn’t have this issue, and I wondered, why only my people? It didn’t seem fair or right.
Being the Chief Water Commissioner is an honour because… it tells me that my Indigenous leaders have heard my voice and seen me using my voice for the water, to protect it and to advocate for my Indigenous people. It is an honour to be an Indigenous Youth and a female standing up for the people and for our inherent right to clean water. Who would have ever thought there would be a time we have to fight and stand up for water?
My proudest accomplishment is… being invited to speak in front of world leaders at the United Nations in New York City. That was an experience of a lifetime, and even if I never did this work ever again, at least the world leaders heard my story and my concern because we all need water, whether we are poor or rich or different colours, we all need water to survive.
I surprise people when I tell them… how old I am, or how far I have travelled. Or how young I was when I began to understand there was an issue with water, and how it impacts everyone, and how we need water to live.
My best advice to other young girls is… to keep going, don’t look back, and if you have an idea, just do it; no one is going to wait for you or tell you what to do, use your voice and speak up for our planet.
The person I look up to is… my best friend Tori because she is almost 6 feet tall (lol JK). But professionally the leadership, Kevin Hart, Regional Chief for Manitoba; Roseann Archibald, Ontario Regional Chief (it’s nice to see a female Chief and that she can make a difference); Grand Chief Glen Hare, of the Anishinabek Nation; my own Chief Ogimaa Duke Peltier. Last but not least, my great auntie Josephine-ba, I will never forget her commitment to the water and her love for water; I was able to see and learn from her and my mom about our rare connection to water.
“Keep going, don’t look back, and if you have an idea, just do it; no one is going to wait for you or tell you what to do, use your voice and speak up for our planet.”
My biggest setback was… bullying, peer pressure and school. There are times when I feel like not doing the work anymore because people say negative things about me, or they feel I am not ceremonial enough or worthy enough, or I’m too young, or negative comments.
I overcame it by… accessing services for help, counselling and speaking to elders and healers. Also having the support of my best friend; she’s always there for me. I’m not a perfect human, I’m still young, and I learned not to be afraid to talk to my mom or someone about how I am feeling.
I stay inspired by… knowing my great auntie paved a path for me and that she is watching over me. Also when I hear from other youth or I inspired them to do something good for our planet, that keeps me going, as well as constant encouragement from the elders.
The most exciting thing about water is… that it gives life, something that many people take for granted and overlook.
The career I aspire to have is… a role where I can make a difference. I aspire to be a lawyer so I can advocate for my people and the environment. My other aspiration is to become a doctor or nurse, as a helper to the people. I am young and my passion is to make a change in a role where I am helping people.
My next step is… to keep meeting other youth with the same passion and help inspire Nations of youth to stand up for our future and our great grand children’s future. I also hope to visit places where the water is considered sacred and meet the ones who understand the sacredness of water.