This 15-Year-Old Is Teaching Us All to be More Responsible About Water

Autumn Peltier on how she made it happen

Ishani Nath
Autumn Peltier
(Photo: Irevaphotography Linda Roy of Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation, Manitoulin Island Ontario)

Name: Autumn Peltier  

Job title: Water advocate and chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation

Age: 15

From: Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, Ont.

Currently lives in: Ottawa

Education: In grade 10, St. Mother Teresa High School

Autumn Peltier grew up with an understanding of the importance of water and the need to protect it, but she vividly remembers when she first saw why this is such an urgent cause. She was eight years old and attending a water ceremony on a First Nations reserve 1.5 hours from her home in Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation.

“I went to the washroom, and all over the walls it said ‘Don’t drink or touch the water,’ ‘Not for consumption’ and ‘Boil water advisory.’ And I had no idea what all that meant,” says Peltier. Her mother explained that the water in that community—like on 56 Indigenous reserves in Canada today—was contaminated to the point that it was unsafe. That’s the moment that Peltier decided she needed to take action. 

“Something is wrong if us youth are having to speak up and say something,” she says. “We should just be being kids—we shouldn’t have to be standing up and advocating for our future.”

But stand up she did, starting with speaking about the environment and the importance of clean drinking water at her school. At age 10, she was invited to the Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden, and not long after that she made headlines for publicly criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in person during the 2016 Assembly of First Nations’ annual winter meeting.

Peltier’s activism earned her accolades and attention from around the world, including a nomination for the 2019 International Children’s Peace Prize. She was named one of the world’s 100 most inspiring and influential women by the BBC and has spoken multiple times at the UN, most recently for the 2019 Global Landscapes Forum. However, the 15-year-old still faces a challenge that all too many teens struggle with. “I go through a lot of bullying because of what I do…that’s probably the only barrier that’s kinda making me not want to do this anymore,” she says.  

Earlier this year, Peltier was named chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, a position she took over from her great-aunt Josephine Mandamin, one of her mentors. Mandamin, who passed away in February at age 77, inspired much of Peltier’s activism and continues to be a source of motivation, particularly when things are tough.

“Before [my great-aunt] passed away, she told me, ‘Don’t let anyone stop you. And don’t care what people say—just keep on doing the work,’” recalls Peltier. “So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

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