Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski
Our planet is damaged. Innate flaws of humankind – greed, desire – have driven fundamental changes in the natural systems which support our livelihoods. This is not an entry to point a finger of blame on any particular entity; rather, I wish to highlight a story of optimism. After all, this was a core vision of our writing team when we set out to create the Sages platform. But who, exactly, are the environmental heroes/heroines, stewards, and activists that have historically been highlighted in media? I’ll bet on it being a popular figure – a renowned scientist, political leader, or author. However, the media has recently started to direct attention to the voices of a certain group whose input and concern for the environment has historically been overshadowed – youth. This entry describes the vigor of a young woman whose efforts may otherwise have gone unnoticed if not for the recent shift in environmental media.
Autumn Peltier is a 15-year-old indigenous activist of the Wikwemikong First Nation – an unceded Indian reserve. Located on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, she lives adjacent to one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world – Great Lake Huron. Huron provides nearly 2.5 million people with plentiful, sanitary drinking water as it is monitored and treated by both the U.S. and Canada. Though many take freshwater as a given, Autumn first became aware of water injustices at the age of eight. A ceremony with a neighboring First Nation community shed light on water quality issues when she visited the washroom and saw handwriting on the wall saying that the water is “not safe for consumption” and to not “drink or touch the water.” As a curious child, Autumn asked her mother about the warnings, who proceeded to explain that the insanitation of water in their partner First Nation community was not just a local problem but pervades throughout the world.
“We keep seeing and hearing that there’s First Nation communities that can’t drink their water – that it’s contaminated from pollution…one day it really affected me, and I actually cried about it.”
It is likely that this moment struck the match of Peltier’s journey as an environmental activist, advocating for sanitary water access to be considered a human right.
In 2015, Autumn Peltier joined the Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden, her first major event as an activist. The following year, she publicly criticized Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and demanded that he withdraw support from the fossil fuel pipelines which were polluting fellow Canadian and First Nation communities’ sources of freshwater. By 2018 at only 13-years-old, Autumn launched her message to the international platform when she took part in the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Standing proudly behind the podium, the tone of her message was poignant.
“Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. Whether it’s frozen, in the form of rain or clouds, in rivers, lakes or oceans, water is around us and sustains us all. Everything is connected to this issue of clean water, and it impacts our health and well-being.”
Since speaking at the UN, Autumn has gained notoriety and momentum from the international community. She received numerous acknowledgements, was nominated for the Children’s International Peace Prize, and received the 2019 “Planet in Focus” Youth Eco-hero Award. Now known as the “Water Warrior”, Autumn Peltier returned to give another speech at the UN where she reiterated her message.
“I was confused, as Canada is not a Third World country, but here in my country, the Indigenous People live in Third World conditions…We can’t eat money or drink oil.”
Though Peltier’s home is within the majestic Great Lakes, her message and her mission are global. Clean and sufficient water is commonly distributed to communities who are historically privileged with respect to income, political connections, and race. Autumn challenges this paradigm by acknowledging one, unified hydrologic cycle and the fundamental connection of humanity.
“When you ask the question about why the water is so sacred, it’s not just because we need it, and nothing can survive without water. It’s because for years and years our ancestors have passed on traditional oral knowledge that our water is alive, and our water has a spirit. Our first water teaching comes from within our own mother. We literally live in water for nine months, floating in that sacred water that gives us life. We can’t live in our mother’s womb without water.”
Just as all of us once lived in the water of our mother’s wombs, we continue to exist, each day, in the womb of the Earth – completely dependent on its nutrients for our survival. So, let us actively listen to the youth of our world. After all, they are the ones who carry the burden of our actions.
“We can’t just pray anymore. We must do something, and we must do it now.”