Anishinabek Nation Water Commissioner Autumn Peltier visits Attawapiskat, notes ‘third world’ context

Autumn Peltier at the Lieutenant Governor’s office in Queen’s Park Friday. She has been named one of the 2017 Junior Citizens of the Year.

Wiiky teen pushes for change

ATTAWAPISKAT – Wiikwemkoong water walker Autumn Peltier, who earlier this year was named as the Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, has just returned from her first-ever trip to Attawapiskat First Nation during which she offered her support for the community facing a drinking water crisis.

“As soon as I got there, I definitely saw how people say First Nations are living in third-world conditions,” said 14-year-old Autumn Peltier.

Autumn follows in the footsteps of her great aunt, Josephine Mandamin. The late water walker, who was known as Biidasige, fought tirelessly for the protection of water, including walking 17,000 kilometres around the Great Lakes.

Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency earlier this month due to high concentrations of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAA5s) in its water supply, substances created when chlorine was added at the community’s water treatment plant. These compounds can create rashes and, given enough exposure, can increase the risk of cancer. 

Their increased presence can be linked to the higher concentrations of organic compounds in the water supply available to the First Nation. It comes from a small inland lake approximately 53 acres in size which is located relatively close to the sewage lagoons and landfill site.

Residents of the Cree First Nation have been told to not drink the water and limit their use of it for bathing or washing dishes. With the exception of 2017, HAA5 levels at household taps have exceeded water quality standards every year since 2014, based on a slide presentation to the community that was shared online.

“I talked to two younger groups of kids,” said Autumn. “We talked about how they feel bad that they don’t have access to clean drinking water (at home), and how they feel bad that their grandparents have to walk so far to get water for themselves.”

Residents can access drinking water at one of two ‘dispensaries’ in town, which use reverse osmosis systems to filter the water. THM and HAA5 levels are below guidelines in the filtered water but according to several news reports, those numbers are steadily increasing. The dispensaries themselves are often not the most inviting of places, either.

“They’re very small buildings, like a shed,” said Autumn. Photos from Autumn’s Facebook page show discolouration inside the sink, a growing hole in the flooring due to the constant foot traffic and messages scrawled on the wall that depict their writers’ love and loss.

“It’s really serious because people need water to survive. Nothing can live without water,” said Autumn. “They can’t even wash their hands with the water, wash their dishes or brush their teeth. They can even breathe in the toxins from the water.”

As is the case with many Northern communities, especially those in remote places and with smaller populations, prices for food and other necessities are astronomical in Attawapiskat. Autumn said the price of bottled water can be as high as seven dollars.

“It makes me really angry because Canada is supposed to be a good country to live in—in the eyes of other people, they see Canada as a perfect country. But then First Nations communities can’t even drink their water,” Autumn said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

The federal government has committed to addressing the concerns and Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan visited the community. According to news reports, he vowed to increase the presence of health officials in the community, improve components of the water system and a plan to find long-term solutions to the problem.

Autumn said a solid way forward is desperately needed for the residents of Attawapiskat and other communities facing similar challenges. Another fly-in reserve, the Ojibwe Eabametoong First Nation (Fort Hope) in Northwestern Ontario, recently declared a state of emergency over its own drinking water.

“All they ask is to be able to drink their water. It’s a basic human right; everybody needs drinking water,” said Autumn.