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Indigenous Affairs
Rights + Justice
Federal Politics

Why Have So Many Communities Gone Without Water for So Long, Autumn Peltier Asks

‘Here in my country, the Indigenous People live in Third World conditions,’ teen Indigenous activist tells the UN.

Autumn Peltier 30 Sep 2019 |

Autumn Peltier is chief water commissioner from the Anishinabek Nation in Canada.

[Editor’s note: Indigenous activist Autumn Peltier, 15, from Manitoulin Island, delivered this speech to the Global Landscapes Forum and the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, one day after Canadians took to the streets to march against inaction on climate change. We share it in full below, courtesy of the Global Landscapes Forum.]

Bozhoo, Mskwaa-Giizo Koe Ndigoo, Migizi Ndodem, Miswendaan Nwii Midewayaan. Wiikwemkoong Ndoonjibaa.

I would like to thank the Global Landscapes Forum and the United Nations General Assembly for having me here today to share my concerns and share why my people have a sacred connection to the water and the lands.

I would like to start by sharing that the work I do is in honour of my late Great Auntie Biidaasige-ba. If it weren’t for her lifetime commitment and sacrifices to create the awareness and the sacredness of water, I would not be standing here today. She inspired me to do this work as she was an elder when she began. I thought about who would keep doing her work one day; I just didn’t expect that day to come as soon as it did. She created the Mother Earth Water Walks. She walked around all the Great Lakes, more than once. She did this because the Elders began to see changes in the lands, medicines, animals and waters.

I come from Manitoulin Island. It’s the largest fresh-water island in the world. It is surrounded by Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. It is here where my activism work began. It all started by learning why my people couldn’t drink the water on Ontario Indigenous lands. I was confused, as Canada is not a Third World country, but here in my country, the Indigenous People live in Third World conditions.

Boil water advisories are still in existence and have been for over 20 years in some communities. There are children born into a world living off bottled water, living off a certain amount to do everyday things. I began to research this issue and discovered it was all across Canada. Then I learned of places like Flint, Michigan, in the U.S. Then I learned the seriousness of having clean drinking water.

Then it was like a lightbulb went on, why my great auntie was doing what she did for the majority of her life, until her last breath.

This brings me to what means the most to me and what I have been learning and sharing. The Sacredness of water. From a young age, from as long as I can remember, I was raised going to ceremony with my mother and my Auntie Josephine. I was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and we spent so much time with her and my Uncle Andrew.

When you ask the question about why is the water 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. As a fetus, we need that sacred water for development. The sacred significance is that my mother comes from her mother’s water, my grandmother comes from her mother’s water, and my great-great grandmother comes from her mother’s water. 

Flowing within us is original water, lifeblood of Mother Earth that sustains us, as we come from this land. Mother Earth’s power is in the lifeblood of Mother Earth, which is our water. Mother Earth has the power to destroy us all, and if we keep harming her, one day she may decide to destroy everything.

All water is original from time immemorial. To think our ancestors drank from this same water thousands of years before us. Water evaporates and can turn into mist, fog, rain, clouds and snow. Water can go and be anywhere. We are constantly surrounded by water. Water not only surrounds us, but my teaching is that water hears us, feels us, and listens to us. When you pray to the water, our prayers are that much stronger. There are scientific studies that talk about water having spirit and feeling positive and negative thoughts.

Growing up and understanding how everything is connected to water, and how vital our waterways are is amazing in itself. My people still live off the land, we eat wild game, we harvest medicines from the lands, our waterways are vital in giving millions clean drinking water. Unlike several Canadian Indigenous communities across Canada and United States, and international countries in Third World conditions where they don’t have access to clean drinking water, I can’t even imagine what it is like to be dependent on bottled water. I visited a northern community called Attawapiskat, which is located on the James Bay, and I spoke to kids, and they shared their concerns and what it was like for them. No child should have to experience not knowing what clean running water is. This makes me upset.

This is why I’m here today. I have been raised in a traditional way and knowing my territory and the waters around my country and the issues my people face. I have heard of places like Flint and Six Nations in the Grand River; all across these lands we know somewhere where someone can’t drink the water. Why so many, and why have they gone without water so long?

I shared my thoughts with our prime minister, and he promised me in 2016 he would look after the water, and as a youth I will hold him or any future leader to this promise for my people. Children in Northern Ontario communities right now still can’t drink their water. Water is a basic human right. We all need to think about the planet and work together on solutions to reduce the impacts of human negligence.

One solution that resonates with me is a story my grandfather shared with me. My grandfather is going to be 74. He told me when he was a little boy, there was no plastic. There was no such thing as a straw, or Saran Wrap or Ziploc bags. There was no foil; no disposable plastic existed. He said they preserved everything. They stored food in the ground in cellars, used salt and blocks of ice. He said everything was wood or glass. They rescued everything they could, because they had no choice.

So why can’t we ban all plastics and go back to the old way, and work for our daily living? That’s an inexpensive solution, by trying to be more environmentally friendly and do the work. My ancestors were hard workers. My people survived without electricity and what we see today. Why can’t we go back to our ways? I’m sure everyone in this room has heard a story from their grandparents of how hard they worked and how they lived. I know I hear it when I listen to the elders. They share stories for a reason, as they are our teachers. Maybe we need to have more elders and youth together sitting at the decision table when people make decisions about our lands and waters. I said it once, and I will say it again. We can’t eat money or drink oil.

In closing, we need to protect the habitants around all waters across the world. We need to remember that our ancestors’ prayers are still protecting this land, and that we are our ancestors' hope. One day I will be an ancestor, and I want my descendants to know I used my voice so they can have a future.

We need to join forces with all nations regardless of colour and nationality. Mother Earth does not discriminate, and we need Mother Earth to live, and we need the waters. When we stand together as one, we are one voice and one nation, and together as one we are stronger. We have this one last chance to save our planet. Let’s do this for our great, great grandchildren.

Thank you. Miigwech.  [Tyee]

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