Indigenous activist Autumn Peltier features in stunning short documentary film 'The Water Walker'

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Image: The Water Walker animation/Christi Belcourt art

At age eight, Autumn Peltier participated in a water ceremony at Serpent River, located between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, Ontario. Her visit to the facility's bathroom while there would become engraved in memory.

Signs declared the water was "not for consumption" and that there was a boil water advisory. Peltier, who is now 15, was confused and asked her mother what that meant. It shocked her and she couldn't understand how this could be happening in a country like Canada.

"There were kids my age who didn't know what it meant to drink clean water from the tap," she reveals in a beautiful new short documentary, The Water Walker, launching at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. As a treat for all Canadians, this 15-minute short will be made available for free online streaming on September 14 for 24 hours.

That crucial visit, seven years ago, sparked Peltier's journey to fight for clean water across Canada, especially in Indigenous communities that are battling contaminated waterways and disease. There are currently 61 long-term water advisories in First Nations communities in Canada.

The Water Walker captures Peltier at a crucial time, in 2019. Only six months prior, her great aunt, a highly respected water protector and commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, died. 

Peltier, who is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, was bestowed the same honour and named the chief water commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation, representing 40 First Nations across Ontario. She was just 14 years old.

Indeed, she has taken and embodied that torch. Peltier comes from a long line of water protectors and chiefs -- it's this lineage that propels her.

Christi Belcourt art animated

Besides the strong personal story of Peltier, the film is further amplified and deepened through animation of the rich, colourful art work of Christi Belcourt, underscored by the resonant voice-over of veteran Indigenous actor Graham Greene. Belcourt's art work and poems add a magic touch to the documentary, further enriching the narrative.

Belcourt, who is Metis, was named the Aboriginal arts laureate by the Ontario Arts Council in 2015. The following year, she won a Governor General's innovation award as well as the 2016 premier's awards in the arts. Her work Giniigaaniimenaaning (Looking Ahead) commemorates residential school survivors to mark the prime minister's historic apology in 2008, and is installed at centre block on Parliament Hill.

"Water holds all of life on this planet in its embrace and that it is why it is so vitally important that we as the human species do all within our power to protect water against the violence of multinational corporations who are not considering the very long term detrimental effects for the coming generations," wrote Belcourt in a message to rabble.ca.

"Water truly has no flag and it has no borders. We must join forces."

The animations bridge the inner and outer worlds of Peltier as we follow her journey, which takes her to a global audience. She lands in New York and addresses the Global Landscapes Forum at the United Nations in 2019. We see how the water walker lineage shines forth through her.

However, the spotlight comes at a price. Catch the film and you'll discover the emotional toll her activism takes. Nevertheless, Peltier remains steadfast, calling for people to "warrior up."

"Everything is about money to adults. You can't eat money. You can't drink oil," she said.

Watch, learn and join the battle. 

Author's note: There are many wonderful Indigenous-themed films, including Inconvenient Indian, to catch at TIFF. I'd like to also single out, for those unable to make it to Toronto, a wonderful free streaming festival out of the U.S. highlighting Indigenous stories.

On August 31, Vision Maker Media launched its first ever Indigenous Film Festival. This event ends October 5, 2020. American Indian, Alaska Native and other Indigenous films from around the world are also on offer.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image: The Water Walker animation/Christi Belcourt art

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