Even at the tender age of 12, Autumn Peltier speaks with the wisdom of someone much older.
“I’m going to be an ancestor one day,” says Peltier, from her home in Wikwemikong First Nation in northern Ontario. “I’m still going to have great-grandchildren on this land and I hope they are still able to drink the water.”
Despite her youth, Peltier is already a veteran activist when it comes to the issue of clean drinking water — not just in First Nations communities, but across the country.
“I do what I do for the water because water is sacred,” says Peltier, who was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations as a water protector.
Since water doesn’t have a voice, Peltier says she wants to lend hers to the cause. Even if that means taking on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as she did last December at the AFN’s annual winter gathering.
“I am from this land. My ancestors are buried here on this land. This land is our land and it’s part of me and part of everything I am and everything I do.”
Peltier was chosen to present a gift — a traditional water bundle — to Trudeau at the event. She had a speech prepared, but when she began thinking about the government’s decision to approve Kinder Morgan’s expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, she began to cry.
She says told Trudeau: “I’m not happy with the decisions you’ve made for my people.”
“I understand that,” she says the Prime Minister told her.
For Peltier, protecting the water is very personal: It’s part of what it means to be Indigenous.
“I am from this land,” she says. “My ancestors are buried here on this land. This land is our land and it’s part of me and part of everything I am and everything I do.”
Peltier explains the unique relationship between women, as the givers of life, and the importance water plays in sustaining all life.
“Women are sacred vessels. They carry the water for nine months while babies are in the womb and so we all come from that sacred water,” she says.
“We all need water. We wouldn’t be able to live without water. Nothing would.”
Her inspiration is her aunt, Josephine Mandamin, who has walked the shorelines of all five Great Lakes and is a recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation.
Peltier says she has mixed emotions around the Canada 150 celebrations.
On the one hand, she has relatives who served in both World Wars and is proud to live in the safe, free country they helped build.
At the same time, however, she is also aware of the toll those years have taken on Indigenous people.
“We lost some of our ways, we lost our language, we suffered the impacts of residential school,” says Peltier.
“My people should be celebrating resilience because we are still here and we survived the whole time.”