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Autumn Peltier and the fight for native Canadians’ right to water
Autumn Peltier is a water defender who began her fight for indigenous Canadians’ right to clean drinking water when she was only eight years old.
curated by Emanuele Bompan
Sixteen years old, and already a warrior. Autumn Peltier is a member of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation aboriginal tribe, which has inhabited the cold grasslands of Northern Ontario in Canada for hundreds of years, well before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. She lives on the shores of Lake Huron, one of the North American Great Lakes, the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. These lands are known to be among the most water-rich in the world, with attractions like the Niagara Falls and the endless shores of Lake Superior. And yet, even here, people’s access to water is still at risk. The precious resource is exploited by large bottling companies like Nestlé Water, or polluted by oil extraction. First Nation communities are often the worst-affected.
“Blue gold”, one of the most sacred elements
“We’re continuously gathering stories from First Nation communities who aren’t able to drink their own water as it’s contaminated by pollution and ruptured pipelines,” Autumn Peltier recounts during a web call. Despite her young age, Autumn speaks with the confidence of someone with years of experience, who has already celebrated many victories and suffered ther fair share of defeats. Her voice is serious, almost inspiring fear, although there are moments when the shyness and indecisiveness you would expect from a sixteen-year-old do come through. Her fight began when she was eight. And she’s seen it all in these eight years – the good and bad.
“I decided to be a water defender after taking part in a ceremony in a village that had no access to clean, safe drinking water,” Autumn explains. “I was struck by the fact that people my age didn’t even know what a drinking water tap was. They first had to boil water in big pots to drink it. I saw this as a profound injustice, and I had to do something about it”. So Autumn decided to act. That same year, she asked her parents to take part in a number of water ceremonies across Ontario. Her inspiration came from aunt Josephine Mandamin, who for years was an activist fighting for the right to water, organising protests in the Great Lakes region to ensure all communities had access to the resource. Soon, Autumn became an advocate recognised by tribal chiefs, given the title “water protector” thanks to her commitment to fighting for universal access. “It’s our right. Blue gold is one of the most sacred elements of our culture,” she states proudly.
“We can drink neither money nor oil. We have to do everything we can for water. Even fight.”
Canada and the prime minister’s false promises
Autumn rose to fame thanks to her actions at a First Nations assembly in 2016 in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – completely improvised and separate from the official ceremony. “I offered him a cup of water to have a drink and told him I didn’t agree with the choices that had been made regarding water management in Canada, which were to the detriment of our people. Trudeau made a great many promises that things would be set right. But at the same time, he authorised the construction of the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline. And, just a few months ago, there was a major oil spill in British Columbia. How can we trust him?”.
Autumn’s speech at the UN
Last year Autumn spoke to world leaders at the United Nations about the conservation of the planet’s water resources as the first decade of international mobilisation for water and sustainable development was being inaugurated.
“Everyone listens but nothing changes,” she says, pointedly. “There are currently hundreds of communities that have been advised not to drink water directly, but to boil it first. Before anything happens, federal authorities sometimes let up to a year go by. And everything stays the same anyway. It’s young people, people who are sixteen today, who are changing and who have really internalised the environmental challenge”. Despite decades of progressive policies, a form of “environmental racism” towards First Nation communities persists. People who stand up in protest are often brutally repressed. “Police brutality is a clear sign of this racial injustice”. And there’s more.
People’s demands are systematically ignored. Although white Canadian communities, even those living in the most remote areas, are always served by modern water infrastructure, the same can’t be said for First Nation citizens. “Especially communities in northern territories, where there are no communication networks: they still live in a state of serious underdevelopment, no one gives them any support”. Even in wealthy, progressive Canada, there’s still a long way to go. But Autumn promises she’ll keep fighting till the end. “We can drink neither money nor oil. We have to do everything we can for water. Even fight”.
Water Defenders is a Water Grabbing Observatory project celebrating the tenth anniversary of the recognition of the human right to water through a series of interviews that tell the stories of grassroots battles being fought for water all over the world. A multi-faceted struggle against resource exploitation and large as well as small projects that impact communities and natural environments. Ordinary yet extraordinary men and women across the world are defending this fundamental human right. Starting from World Water Day, 22 March, LifeGate regularly publishes features by the Water Grabbing Observatory, each centred on a person fighting to protect the most precious resource we have. And claim their right to water.
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