In 2019, we introduced our WOI Community to Top 25 Award recipient Autumn Peltier, a teenage water activist from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, and the chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation. Autumn’s advocacy for water protection started when she was just eight years old — and she’s been guided and supported throughout this journey by her mother, Stephanie Peltier. We asked Stephanie about her own role in advocacy, and how she’s helping Autumn navigate a growing spotlight on a global stage — while managing to keep grounded, and give a normal teenagehood to her three girls.
When I first became interested in advocacy… I was a young woman myself, 16, when I learned about advocacy. I grew up knowing and understanding our rights as Indigenous peoples and having role models such as Buffy Sainte Marie, Jenette Laval Corbiere and my aunt Josephine Mandamin. I was always fascinated how Indigenous women can be so strong and fearless and I always said to myself I hope one day I will be like them. I always attended traditional ceremonies, gatherings and protests because I always knew from a young age that one day I would be a mother and a grandmother. I always wanted to be the kind of grandma my grandkids could come to for help and guidance and to learn cool things. I also wanted to carry on our ways and traditions. From a young age I made it my personal mission to learn our ways from our knowledge keepers because I didn’t want us to lose our teachings and our way of life. I never imagined that doing this would result in raising a world famous young advocate.
My proudest accomplishment is… Being a healthy, strong, independent single mother. I think the biggest role as women we can ever be is mothers. There is no other honor in being chosen by your children to be their parent. It is also a whole different kind of strength and determination because all mothers want the best for their children and we do whatever we can to make sure our children experience life and succeed.
I think the belief I have in our spiritual ways is what carried me through all the struggles and hardships a mom can experience as a single parent. There were days when I felt I couldn’t do it, or worried about how to pay the rent, or where to get food, but at the end of the day we never went without. There were many struggles, but I always tried to stay positive, I allowed myself to cry and to feel, and knew things would turn out okay.
I try not to be overly proud of my accomplishments as a parent and a woman. When I look at my daughters and see who they are and what they do today, it is my biggest and most proudest accomplishment. When I meet young moms, I always try to empower them to be resourceful and reach out for help and to know that there are services out there we can access to help us. I met amazing people in Big Sisters, the Aboriginal Health Access Centers, the Indian Friendship Centers, Aboriginal Head Start programs, day care subsidy programs, food banks, domestic violence shelters, and counsellors.
I surprise people when I tell them… usually my age, then that I am ‘Autumn’s mom.’ I was always taught to look after myself, never leave the house looking messy, wrinkled clothing, or unkept. Always take the time to comb your hair and brush your teeth and be color coordinated. So I learned at a young age to take care of my physical appearance and be as healthy as you can be.
When I travel with my daughter Autumn, I will sometimes be asked, “and who might you be?” My response is “I am Autumn’s mom.” Many people know me as Autumn’s mom — I sometimes will say my name is “Stephanie” (LOL). It’s nice to be acknowledged because a big part of me has been mentoring her from the beginning.
As a mother I hope to teach my girls… That giving up was never an option, that being a mother it gives you almost like a super power. It’s a strength only a mother would know. When you’re so tired or so stressed or so upset, it takes a lot of strength to say with a smile, “Everything is okay, mummy loves you, everything will be okay.” Even when it feels like the world is crashing down around you.
What always gives me hope is the stories of all the women’s umbilical cords I come from. We didn’t come from money, we came from hard work and survival. Every day was about surviving until the end of the day, the week, the month or year. Each season had to do with planting, nurturing, harvesting and preserving. It was knowing the land and animals. It was understanding if a harsh winter is coming, hauling water and travelling with no cars, having no electricity and all the necessities we have access to today. I often reflect and share the stories of how things were before me. How I came from women who worked hard and they planned for every situation. So I teach them to learn how to work hard for what you need and want. How to be independent and how there was no try, we keep going. I teach them that we can multi-task and women are capable of many things.
I will often share with them the teachings I got from some pretty amazing women in my life about how to be a woman and what my role will be. Some of those women are not here anymore and a handful are, and when I say my daily prayers I acknowledge all those aunties and helpers I had, because without them I would not be here and would not have been the woman I am today or mother I am today.
My mother taught me… She taught me strength. My mother passed away only five months ago. This will be my first Mother’s Day without my mom. Until her last days she kept going. She could barely walk and at times I physically carried her and it reminded me of the book by Robert Munsch, Love you Forever. Her ending was very much that same way. It hurt me to have to carry her in and out of my vehicle and buckle her up. It hurt me to see her try to walk up and down stairs. My cutest memory was of her and I sliding down the stairs of my house because it hurt her to walk. She laughed as we slid down and she said, “Oh this is as fun as it looks.”
Our last road trip we saw two moose. It was a large moose and we didn’t see the smaller one. When the small one appeared and the mom moose kissed the baby moose, she simply said, “We couldn’t see the moose, like it was a part of her, then she appeared, like you and me.” She said that is “you and me.” In her pain and her struggle, she smiled and always kept her thoughts positive. She made me see that we can’t change people but we can change ourselves and our moments. In her moments of despair, she still smiled and was at peace. When I have a pain, I smile and I keep going. She also showed me that we should not ignore our pains and ask for help, to set our pride aside. I guess we call that humility. She also did show me we are capable of forgiveness and everlasting love.
My biggest setback was… always working. I rarely got child support and I didn’t complain about it. I just figured that one day those who aren’t as responsible will realize it and my current responsibility was to provide. So I have always worked to give my kids a life where they didn’t have to worry so much and see struggle. So time with my kids as a mother, time with my own mother before she passed and time with my dad. Time is a precious thing and I learned that it was never about how much time we have, it is about what we do with the time we have. Make the best out of the time, even if it is short.
I overcame it by… Picking myself up and dusting myself off. I came up with this plan with my kids. I always said because I’m not always there all day because I work, let’s try to make sure we make the best out of our time. So I said we will try to make it as fun as we can. So for our day we will try to have a checklist. One fun thing, one memorable thing, one silly thing, and make sure we tell each other we love each other and hug each other.
The challenge we must work together to overcome is… Working as a team and figuring out a way to make things work. Making time to do loving things together. We also make time to bake cookies, cupcakes or biscuits, this has been fun for us. Also to be conscious of the hours we have together and do what we have to do. We also dance a lot — dancing is fun and we can do this anywhere. Ask the kids, sometimes I embarrass them, but this is also my time to be memorable and silly.
My advice for aspiring activists is… Just do it and if you have an idea, go with it. Follow your heart and trust your spirit. Whatever is calling you, follow it and just move forward.
I stay inspired by… Listening to the elders and the ones who have gone before us. Being grounded by grassroots people and things is what keeps me going. Hearing the stories and being there in the present and experiencing what people are going through and standing up for.
The future excites me because… You never know what is around the corner, but you dig your heels into the ground and be ready. If you’re somewhat prepared, you’re grounded and ready to have fun with what is ahead of you. Also allow yourself to have fun and be open for change.