• Activist Autumn Peltier on the shores of Manidoowaaling (Manitoulin) Island, Ont., with a copper water vessel. (Photo: Linda Roy)

In 2016, 12-year-old Autumn Peltier of Manidoowaaling (Manitoulin) Island in Ontario stood onstage at the winter gathering of the Assembly of First Nations in Gatineau, Que. She wore an Anishinaabe water dress, made painstakingly by her mother, and held a water bundle, comprisinga copper bowl, a copper cup, some red cloth and tobacco, to present to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Peltier, who is Anishinaabe-kwe and a member of Wiikwemkoong First Nation, had just returned from the Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden — but her plea to Trudeau to protect the water catapulted her to international recognition.

Four years later, Autumn is the chiefwater commissioner for Anishinabek Nation, has been nominated for the Children’s Peace Prize three years in a row and last year was the only Canadian on the BBC’s list of 100 most influential women. Peltier spoke  with Canadian Geographic on water protection, youth activism and her ties to the water.

On what drew her to protecting fresh water

When I was eight, I attended a water ceremony in Serpent River First Nation. I went to the washroom and all over the walls were signs that said, “Don’t drink the water. Water is not for consumption. Don't touch the water.” And I was like, “Okay, why can't we do that?” We had to use hand sanitizer after using the washroom. My mom explained to me that they couldn’t drink their water in that community. They have to boil it before using it. That hit me: why can’t they drink the water? There’s kids my age and younger not knowing what it’s like to drink clean water from a tap. I had to do something about it.

On her infamous 2016 confrontation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

I was 12 years old and Trudeau had recently went ahead with the Kinder Morgan pipeline — after promising First Nation Peoples that he was going to do better for them. To me, that’s a broken promise, so I had to tell him off. I said, “I’m very unhappy with the choices you made and broken promises to my people.” He said he understood and that he’d protect the water. I don’t think he should have made that promise, because now I’m going to hold him accountable. 

On addressing world leaders at the UN the very next year

Addressing world leaders is not something I ever expected to do at 13. I stopped being nervous after the first couple of years of speaking to audiences. And I knew this was my chance to get mymessage out to the world. I had to say what I had to say, and I knew that they wanted to hear it. I'm really happy that I have this platform because I'm able to speak up for these First Nations communities on an international level. Everyone deserves clean drinking water. It’s a basic human right.

On being named chief water commissioner for Anishinabek Nation

Josephine Mandamin, my great-aunt, was doing this work way before I was born. As I got older, I started to realize that her health was deteriorating and it was becoming a lot harder for her. That’s when I started working harder and doing advocacy work. Then, she passed away and the Anishinabek Nation decided to give the role to me. So now I hold her title. Before she passed shesaid, “people are going to try to stop you, but you just can’t listen to them; you have to keep on thinking about why you’re doing this.” Her words are stuck in my head every time I give a speech. I have to keep thinking about why I’m doing this — and I don’t stop.

On women as water activists

In my culture, my people believe that water is one of the most sacred elements. It’s something we honour. My people believe that when we’re in the womb, we live in water for nine months and our mother carries us in the water. As a fetus, we learn our first two teachings: how to love the water and how to love our mother. As women, we’re really connected to the water in a spiritual way. We believe that we’re in ceremony for nine months when we carry a baby. Another way to look at it is that water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth, and Mother Earth is female.

On the importance of youth

In the past few years there’s a lot more people my age and younger that are standing up. I strongly encourage the youth to stand up because we are the future leaders and we are the people that will be making decisions for our country. But, our youth shouldn’t be having to stand up — we’re paying for the mistakes that older people made. There are people that say, “she can’t do this, what she’s saying doesn't matter because she’s only fifteen years old.” But I think the only reason I got this much attention is because of how old I am. So I think what I’m doing is really good and I feel like more youth do need to stand up.

On what she wants to do in the future

I’m kind of stuck between two different aspirations. I want to be a politician, as I’d have a stronger voice to be able to speak about First Nations communities and the global water crisis on a stronger, higher platform. At the same time, I actually want to be a pediatrician because of my younger sister — she’s kind of inspired me to want to work with kids and help them. I really want to do both of them.