Indigenous peoples and people of color are disproportionately affected by our global climate crisis. But in the mainstream green movement and in the media, they are often forgotten or excluded. This is Tipping Point, a new VICE series that covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
“We can’t eat money and we can’t drink oil,” Autumn Peltier told world leaders at the United Nations on Saturday during a weeklong global summit on climate change. “One day I will be an ancestor and I want my descendants to know that I used my voice so that they could have a future.”
Peltier is a 15 year old citizen of Wiikwemkoong First Nation. As the Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, she represents more than 40 First Nations in Ontario, many of whom, lack clean drinking water. In Peltier’s speech to the U.N., she urged world leaders to use their power to ensure people around the world have access to safe drinking water. “Water is a basic human right,” she said.
Though the spotlight on youth activists focused on climate change may be most bright on Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg—who made international headlines for chastising world leaders for not doing more to prevent climate change—she is, of course, far from alone.
The environmentalist movement sprung up in western countries in the 1970s, but Indigenous people have always seen their role as protecting the earth. While Peltier is young among global climate activists, in many ways she was born into this role. Peltier lives on unceded Wiikwemkoong territory on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world. Nestled within Lake Huron on Canada’s southern border, she is quite literally surrounded by water. As an Anishinaabe woman, she learned about her responsibility to protect the water from a young age. “We’re automatically given roles and responsibilities to protect the water and to protect the land being born Anishinaabe, being born a First Nations person,” Peltier said. Peltier has been speaking up about the environment since she was in elementary school.
When Peltier was 8 years-old, she and her family traveled north to the Serpent River First Nation reserve for a water ceremony. While in the washroom, Peltier saw posters with a warning she had never read before. “All over the walls it said ‘boil water advisory.’ Don’t drink or touch the water,” Peltier told Vice.
Peltier asked her mother what the signs meant and learned that many First Nations communities in Canada didn’t have safe drinking water. Today 56 First Nation communities are still under boil advisory, some for more than 20 years. Canada’s Liberal Party has pledged to provide clean water to everyone by 2021, but after several false starts and passed deadlines many residents remain wary according to local press.
In Neskantaga First Nation, residents have lived without clean drinking water for 25 years. After suffering Canada’s longest boil advisory, last month the situation got even worse. Pumps in the remote community’s water plant broke leaving many houses without running water at all. Families had to evacuate.
“No community should be on a boil water advisory,” Peltier told Vice. “Or experience not being able to drink from your own tap. Children shouldn’t have to grow up not knowing what it’s like to drink from your faucet, or shower, or wash your hands. “Canada is not a Third World country but some of our First Nations are living in Third World conditions.”
Learning about the water crisis facing Indigenous communities in Ontario launched Peltier into action. At the age of eight she started speaking out about the importance of water on her reserve. Last year, she addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In April, at the age of 14, she became the Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation. In her role, she visits different reserves, meets with leaders of the Anishinabek Nation, and speaks internationally about Indigenous and water rights. Last month, she was nominated—for a third time—for the International Children's Peace Prize.
In April, Peltier inherited her role from her great aunt, Josephine Henrietta Mandamin, an internationally recognized water rights and Indigenous activist who passed away in February. After founding Mother Earth Water Walkers, she walked the entire shoreline of the Great Lakes. In total, she walked over 15,000 miles to advocate for water.
From her great aunt Josephine and other family members, Peltier says she learned the cultural importance of water. “When you ask the question about why is water so sacred, it’s not just because we need it and nothing can survive without water,” Peltier told the U.N. “For years and years, our ancestors have passed on traditional oral knowledge that our water is alive and our water has a spirit.”
Peltier first caught media attention when she confronted Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016. At the winter meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, Peltier was invited to give the Prime Minister a gift. Instead she gave him a message. "I am very unhappy with the choices you've made.” she told him publicly.
By phone, Peltier explained she was frustrated with Trudeau’s failure to provide clean water to First Nation communities and his decision to greenlight controversial pipeline projects. Trudeau responded by promising to do better. “As a youth I’m going to hold him accountable,” Peltier told Vice. “Because he made a promise.”
As the globe faces a growing climate crisis, Indigenous people—and their rights—play a vital role in preventing ecological destruction and climate catastrophe. Indigenous people inhabit 25 percent of the earth’s surface, but protect more than 80 percent of the earth’s biodiversity. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, traditional landholders, including Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, manage 40 percent of all ecologically intact land on the planet, including 22 percent of the world’s carbon-sinking tropical forests. The U.N.’s top climate change body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says without rights for Indigenous people, climate change will certainly get worse. But in too many conversations about climate change, tribes like Peltier’s aren’t at the table.
Native American and First Nation activists have long gone to the U.N. to demand Indigenous rights where the U.S. and Canada have fallen short. In 2007, the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). The sweeping decree "emphasizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions.” Addressing everything from land rights to cultural appropriation, the declaration explicitly stated world leaders should work with indigenous communities on global challenges like climate change. Of all the U.N. member states, only four countries voted against the declaration including the United States and Canada.
While the declaration was historic, it didn’t come with teeth; none of its platforms are enforceable under international law. Indigenous leaders have criticized UNDRIP for being mostly symbolic. While the U.N. has a strong rhetorical stance on indigenous rights, without enforcement, Indigenous rights continue to suffer worldwide. As does the planet.
On Sunday Peltier was traveling back to Manitoulin Island from New York City after addressing the United Nations. Even though she had spoken in front of the U.N. before, this year felt different. “You could tell they were paying closer attention,” she told me.
In addition to the U.N. General Assembly, the entire globe is paying more attention. More than six million people have joined climate protest in the past two weeks in over 100 countries and on all seven continents.
Peltier has been doing this work for years, but the past two weeks brought a surge of attention. She went from having 5,000 Instagram followers to over 88,000 in less than a week. While a surge in international interest is “exciting and overwhelming” the Anishinaabe water protector knows there is still a lot of work to do.
“There are a lot of youth that are standing up and it’s because we’re really seeing the effects of climate change,” she told me. “A lot of us youth are scared. We are wondering do we even have a future to look forward to.”