How undrinkable water in Indigenous Canadian communities pushed this 17-year-old activist to confront Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

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Autumn Peltier
Anishinabek Nation Chief Water Commissioner Autumn Peltier. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference. In honor of Earth Day 2022, Yahoo Life speaks to Indigenous youth activists fighting for climate justice.

Autumn Peltier was just 8 years old when she saw a sign at a Canadian First Nation reservation near her own warning people not to drink the water because it was toxic. Her mother explained to her that it had become contaminated due to problems with the water system that range from waterline breaks and equipment failure to the presence of toxic heavy metals or parasites and bacteria. She learned that some Indigenous people have to boil their water to drink it, while for others, even boiling their water won't make it safe enough to consume.

Peltier, a young member of the Anishinabek Nation and resident of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, Canada, was deeply upset by what she learned, and it stuck with her.

Then, in 2019, Peltier's great aunt Josephine Mandamin, a water activist, had a dying wish: that the girl carry on her work. That's when she stepped in as the Anishinabek Nation Chief Water Commissioner — the youngest ever to take on this role (as explained in a forthcoming kids' book), which entails providing advice about water to leaders and citizens in 40 First Nations across Ontario through dialogue and information exchanges.

"In our beliefs, water is very sacred and it's one of the main elements in our culture," says Peltier, who has spoken about polluted water to leaders at more than 200 events, including at two United Nations conferences, and is the subject of a documentary, The Water Walker, coming soon to HBO. "Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. That's how we look at it, as a living thing. It has a spirit."

In her role, Peltier, now 17, has aimed to get clean drinking water to all Indigenous communities, partly by circulating a petition which states, "In Canada, while our water quality is ranked among the best in the world having 20% of the world's fresh water, First Nations across the country still struggle to access a safe supply."

The petition has more than 70,000 signatures as of this month, and Peltier plans to soon hand deliver it to Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, hoping to hold him accountable to a promise he made to her last time she met him, six years ago: that all First Nations communities in Canada would have clean drinking water by now.

"I am very unhappy with the choices you've made," Peltier told Trudeau then. Then she began to cry, adding just two words: "the pipelines," referring to proposals to expand several oil sands pipelines — such as Kinder Morgan and Line 3 — which can contaminate water and a range of ecosystems, including through increased oil tanker traffic that brings a high risk of oil leaks and spills, plus massive carbon emissions. ("It would take volumes to document all the dangers they pose to people, nature and the planet," wrote Natural Resources Defense Council senior advocate Amy Mall of the pipelines recently.)

Peltier says Trudeau replied, "I will protect the water," and that he would resolve all boil-water advisories in Canada by March 2021. Now, while 79% of drinking water advisories have been lifted on First Nations lands, reports the administration, they remain in place for 29 communities — and likely should still be in place for more, claims Jeffrey Burnett, head of global affairs for Autumn Peltier & the Autumn Peltier Foundation.

Yahoo Life reached out to Canada's Office of the Minister of Indigenous Services for an update, and was told by press secretary Alison Murphy, in part, "Working with First Nations communities to support sustainable access to safe drinking water is at the heart of the federal government’s commitment to Indigenous peoples. Since 2015, the government has invested $5.3 billion to build and repair water and wastewater infrastructure and support the effective management and maintenance of water systems."

Still, Indigenous communities in Canada face disproportionately high numbers of drinking water advisories, which, explains a report from the University of Calgary, "is due to inadequate and chronic under-funding, regulatory voids and a lack of resources to support water management." Further, it says, "The number of water-borne diseases in First Nations communities is 26 times higher than the national average, and people living on reserve are 90 times more likely to have no access to running water compared to non-Indigenous people in Canada."

In 2021, a court-approved settlement required Canada to pay 1.5 billion dollars in damages to 140,000 Indigenous people for tainted drinking water, and also commit to spend at least 6 billion Canadian dollars over nine years to fund water infrastructure and operations on hundreds of reserves. But activists like Peltier say it's not enough.

"Everything is about money to the adult. You can't eat money. You can't drink oil," Peltier says in a scene in The Water Walker, so-named because she's following in the footsteps of her aunt, who started the Water Walk movement in 2003, aiming to bring attention to the issue by hoofing it for more than 3,000 miles from Duluth, Minn. to Matane, Quebec.

Peltier also speaks in the film about how her activism has led to kids bullying her at school — though it has not prevented her from speaking up.

"I'm a young person and a young activist," Peltier, who is heading to the 25th Annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles as a speaker on May 1, tells Yahoo Life. "When a message like this comes from a young person, it is so much more powerful, because a young person should not have to speak up about world issues or political issues. That's how you know something's wrong."

Find all of Yahoo Life's Earth Day profiles here.

Video produced by Olivia Schneider:

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