World Water Day 2023 with Autumn Peltier
When Autumn Peltier was eight, she learned the tap water on a neighbouring reserve wasn’t safe to drink, or even to use for hand-washing. That injustice triggered her decade-long advocacy campaign for safe drinking water. She made headlines as a 12 year-old, admonishing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an Assembly of First Nations event for the choices his government had made for her people.
In this bonus episode for World Water Day 2023, Peltier and Jay discuss the way her life shifted, as she started campaigning for clean water. Peltier also shares what it was like to shoot her documentary, The Water Walker, and lets us in on her plans for the future now that she’s finished high school.
On a day devoted to improving the way we manage, consume, and use water, the message is ‘Be The Change’ – something Peltier takes to heart. Two billion people still live without clean water, and the United Nations says member countries have fallen behind on their goal to bring everyone safe water and sanitation by the year 2030.
“The message is so much more powerful and so much more stronger when it’s coming from a young person,” said Peltier, the chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation. “That’s when you know something is wrong, and something has to be done.”
Autumn Peltier is an Indigenous Rights & Water activist whose journey for justice has made waves around the globe. She is 18 years old.
Peltier captivated the world’s attention at the age of 12 when she admonished Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an Assembly of First Nations event for the choices he had made for her people.
At 13, Peltier first spoke at the United Nations General Assembly. Amongst many accolades she’s received the Sovereign Medal of Exceptional Volunteerism from the Governor-General of Canada and
Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. She’s been a featured speaker at The World Economic Forum sharing
the stage with Greta Thunberg, is a regular guest speaker at The United Nations, has been shortlisted for the International Children’s Peace Prize 3 times and in 2022 was runner-up for International Children’s Peace Prize with the Nobel Peace Prize committee.
She was recently featured on the front cover of Maclean’s and included in Maclean’s Top 50 Canadian Power List. In 2022, Peltier was an Honorary Doctorate Inductee from Royal Roads University. She received the Daniel G. Hill Award from Ontario Human Rights Commission as well as the Emerging Canadian Leader Award from Public Policy Forum.
Peltier’s documentary film The Water Walker was released on HBO Canada in 2021.
- Autumn Peltier | The Canadian Encyclopedia
- The gift and a tearful pipeline plea: Autumn Peltier, 12, reveals what she told PM Trudeau – APTN News
- Autumn Peltier: Meet the ‘water protector’ of Canada’s First Nations | CNN
- Autumn Peltier: a long walk for First Nations’ water rights – CIWEM
- Water protector Autumn Peltier speaks at UN | UNICEF Global Development Commons
- Autumn Peltier – Jessica Deeks
Jay Famiglietti: She’s a four-time International Children’s Peace Prize nominee, maker of a documentary film called “The Water Walker”, and she continues to travel the world where she speaks about restoring clean water for Indigenous people. We’re so fortunate to mark this year’s World Water Day with Autumn Peltier.
Welcome to What About Water, Autumn.
Autumn Peltier: Thank you.
Jay Famiglietti: It’s great to have you and great to see you again. We met in Ottawa, which was your birthday.
Autumn Peltier: Yes, it was.
Jay Famiglietti: Now you’re 18. You’re still a student and you are juggling all this stuff on top of your advocacy and your activism. How do you stay focused?
Autumn Peltier: It was hard at first, but I’ve kind of got the hang of it now.
It’s kind of smooth now, but it was a lot of like managing my mental health because I found that’s what took the biggest toll and just finding things that I enjoy doing and doing things and spending time with people that I enjoyed spending time with. I love doing things like working out and that helps me keep like mentally balanced.
And I have a pet. I have my cat. It keeps me balanced as well.
Jay Famiglietti: Uh-huh.
I think we have similarities, although it should be working out more. You’ve been a water activist and a big name in Canada since you were really young. How did that journey begin for you?
Autumn Peltier: I’m Indigenous and I come from a family that practices our traditional practices regularly and frequently.
So I was eight years old and we had happened to be attending a water ceremony. And this water ceremony was taking place in a First Nations community that was about an hour and a half from my own community and I go into the washroom, you know, do my thing and then I go to wash my hands but on the walls and on the mirror it said, “Do not drink the water, not for consumption and boil water advisory.”
You know, eight years old I have no idea what this means and I’m like, “Why can’t I wash my hands?” And so I go ask my mom like, “Why can’t I wash my hands? Like, what’s the oil water advisory? What does all of this mean?” And she said, “Well, this community, they can’t drink their water.” I really can’t grasp what this means yet at all and so I guess that sat with me and the The thought of kids that are my age and younger not knowing what it’s like to go to their tap and wash their hands, they have no idea what it’s like.
They’ve never experienced that. And so later that night, I started to research on my own because we had a computer in our house and I used the computer to research on YouTube, like, way water advisories and I just kind of learned what it was. It triggered motivation for me to kind of speak up and use my voice.
Jay Famiglietti: So you know, you made the national spotlight a few years after that. Can you tell us about that moment?
Autumn Peltier: When I was 12 years old, I was invited to speak at the Assembly of First Nations and well not speak, I was invited to go and give Justin Trudeau a gift and that’s what I was told to do. They told me to not say anything, you walk up and you give him the gift and you come back.
That’s exactly what I was told. I was like, “Okay, I’ll do that.” And so I go up and I don’t know, in that moment, I just kind of like, I felt so much like, you know, when am I ever going to get this opportunity to be face to face with the Prime Minister ever again? And in that moment, I just felt a lot of like motivation to speak up and tell him that I was very unhappy with the choices he’s made and broken promises to my people.
And then he said, “I understand that.” And of course that sparks a lot of emotion for me. And I started crying. And all that kind of came out was the pipelines because at the time he had just accepted and followed through with like the Kinder Morgan pipeline. He said, “I will protect the water.” And so that’s kind of what that moment was.
And yeah, that’s honestly kind of like one of my biggest turning points in this like little career that I have.
Jay Famiglietti: So let me get this straight. So you were told to walk up to the Prime Minister of Canada and just hidden a gift and you chose that moment to say, “Hey, what’s going on?”
Autumn Peltier: Yeah, because I mean, it kind of already kind of didn’t sit right with me.
The fact that they told me to not say anything that I just… They gave me very clear and specific instruction. You walk up, won’t say anything, you come back. That already didn’t sit right with me because I’m someone who obviously likes to use my voice and speak up. And so I used it. I used my freedom of speech.
Jay Famiglietti: That’s excellent. Good for you. And it seems like that really sort of launched your career in the sense that, you know, now you’re attending these high level meetings all over the world. How are people responding to you and your message?
Autumn Peltier: From when I started, I definitely felt a lot less like listened to because of my age and because of who I was, what my gender was, and I guess where I come from.
And you know, just being a young Indigenous girl trying to like speak up and use my voice, it was hard. And I definitely did feel very discouraged at times because you do get the comments like, she’s a kid, like why is she here? Like why does what this kid say, like what does this kid know that we don’t know?
It was very discouraging. I still don’t really feel like taken that seriously even at high level meetings because again I am a young Indigenous woman and that alone kind of is self-explanatory in terms of racism and discrimination and so when I think of it like that it just gives me more motivation to do it.
Jay Famiglietti: Exactly. So I really appreciate that in you and and you just keep at it because you have a message that is impossible to ignore. And like, are you thinking about a career in advocacy and water? We love water over here. I mean.
Autumn Peltier: Actually just got into university a couple of weeks ago.
Jay Famiglietti: Congratulations.
Autumn Peltier: Thank you.
I got into criminology.
Jay Famiglietti: Oh, cool.
Autumn Peltier: Yeah.
Jay Famiglietti: That’s very cool.
Autumn Peltier: Yeah.
Jay Famiglietti: And I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot of water criminals. So maybe you could develop a new specialty.
Autumn Peltier: Yeah.
Jay Famiglietti: One of the problems I always have and when I write, so you know, I’m a professor, we have to write proposals and you know, if we want to do something in water, you know, impact policy or something like that, there’s always this question, how are you going to measure like how well are you doing?
And it’s a really hard question for me. And I wonder about like for you, how do you measure your success when it comes to thinking about, you know, the work that you’re doing and solving water problems?
Autumn Peltier: Well, I definitely feel very successful in terms of bringing Indigenous issues to the table and making them known, but I do not feel successful yet on terms of fixing the problem as a whole, because I definitely still feel like there’s a lot more work that still needs to be done in Canada.
And yes, it’s not my responsibility, but in a way, it feels like my responsibility.
Jay Famiglietti: Are there times when you ever wish that you just had like a more ordinary childhood?
Autumn Peltier: Yeah, well, it definitely was a lot, especially being that young, because it didn’t make sense to me, but it resulted in a lot of bullying and it was very hard on my mental health and there was a lot of times where I did feel like, you know, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to do this. This is, this is really hard.
Jay Famiglietti: That’s tough for me to hear, you know, for someone like you who has taken on this issue and you feel a sense of responsibility to hear that other kids were bullying you basically because of your success.
Autumn Peltier: When I’m doubted, it gives me so much more like motivation to do good and do better and prove negative things wrong.
Jay Famiglietti: Good for you. You made a documentary called “The Water Walker”. What was that experience like and what were you hoping that people would take away from it?
Autumn Peltier: It felt very good and I knew that it was an awesome opportunity because it’s a way for my message visually to be given. You kind of see the story and I feel like that has a certain type of impact on people.
Personally when I see documentaries it has a different impact on me so I’m like people are going to hopefully have that same view on it and see my message or see my story and it was an amazing experience.
Jay Famiglietti: Are you thinking about doing more of those in the future?
Autumn Peltier: I probably won’t have time as I’m starting university, but it’s definitely something I would love to do again, yes.
Jay Famiglietti: I encourage you to think about that. As someone who tries to get the message out about water, we need to try a lot of different ways. And I think some people will read the newspaper, some people will listen to podcasts, a lot of people watch documentaries and you’ve got a great story. And beyond that, you’ve been nominated multiple times for the International Children’s Peace Prize, which is like the Nobel Prize for young people that are out there.
What does it mean to you to be nominated for that?
Autumn Peltier: It feels really good. And like, those are the areas that I do feel successful in because I was able to bring that message and bring these issues that are not talked about at all to talking about them on international platforms and being recognized for international prizes and awards.
And it’s just, it’s an amazing feeling. And I honestly can’t really describe how I feel.
Jay Famiglietti: Yeah, it must be a little bit surreal.
Autumn Peltier: Mm-hmm. It is.
Jay Famiglietti: Since we’re talking about feelings, tell us about your relationship with water.
Autumn Peltier: To me, water is… it’s very important and it’s kind of like one of the main elements in my daily life because being born in Anishinaabe and an Indigenous person, we are taught that it’s our responsibility and it’s our right even before we’re born because before we’re born we live in our mother’s water for nine months and in those nine months we consider a ceremony because you learn your first two teachings which are how to love your mother and how to love the water because those two things give you life, those two things give life, and so you’re taught to have that respect and care for water from the beginning and then again being born Anishinaabe we’re automatically given the right and responsibility to be caretakers of the land and the water and the people and so I look at it from a very unique perspective from a very Indigenous perspective and I treat water as if it’s a human being because you know like I said it gives life, it sustains all life and without water none of us would be here.
Jay Famiglietti: Well, so the theme for this year’s World Water Day, which is always on March 22nd, is “Be the Change.” What is your message for the young people and, you know, not so young people about how they can be the change?
Autumn Peltier: What I’ve learned and experienced through the many years that I’ve been doing this is that the message is so much more powerful and so much more stronger when it’s coming from a young person.
You wouldn’t expect a young person to be talking about world or political issues and so when you do that’s when you know something is wrong and something has to be done.
Jay Famiglietti: This has been great Autumn, thanks so much for joining us today we really appreciate it.
Autumn Peltier: Thank you.