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Twelve-year-old Autumn Peltier broke down in tears as she presented a gift to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of a copper bowl containing a red cloth, some tobacco and a copper cup.
She offered the gifts on stage at the Special Chiefs Assembly hosted by the Assembly of First Nations on traditional Algonquin territory in Gatineau, Que. on Tuesday. Moments later in a televised interview, Peltier said she made it clear to the prime minister that he had let her down.
"I said, 'I’m very unhappy with the choices you’ve made.' And he said, 'I understand that.' And then I started crying, and all I got to say after that was, 'The pipelines,'" Peltier told Jorge Barrera, a reporter from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. "And he said 'I will protect the water,' and then I went to go sit back down."
The exchange came the week after Trudeau made a series of controversial decisions to reject one west coast pipeline — Enbridge's Northern Gateway project — but to approve two others — Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion from Alberta to the west coast of B.C., and Enbridge's Line 3 replacement from Alberta to Wisconsin in the U.S. midwest.
Trudeau and many business leaders have said the projects can be built safely while creating jobs and increasing government revenues that will assist in Canada's transition to a cleaner economy. On the other hand, many Indigenous leaders, environmentalists and some mayors across the country oppose pipeline expansion on grounds of heightened oil spill risk and an increase in carbon emissions that could push Canada's climate change goals out of reach.
Peltier also prepared a short speech that she hoped to deliver to the gathering, and conference organizers invited her to deliver that message on Wednesday afternoon. This decision followed a plea from renowned Métis artist Christi Belcourt, who expressed frustration that people weren't paying attention to Peltier.
In notes from her speech posted online by APTN, Peltier made a plea for the government to take strong action to address climate change, to protect water and to draw inspiration from the dramatic battle by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota against construction of the Dakota access pipeline through land they hold sacred.
Environmentalists say that the Standing Rock struggle has inspired new coalitions and solidarity in other regions against similar proposals for natural resources projects.
"I don’t agree with the underground pipelines," said Peltier's notes. "They are still polluting our water. It’s time for humanity to stop terrorizing Mother Earth and give her time to heal. We came together for Standing Rock and we can certainly come together for water. I hope we can stand together in unity. I would like to take this opportunity to offer up a water song.”
After watching the scene unfold, Belcourt had expressed her frustration on her Facebook page. She posted an image of the gift exchange with Trudeau and said it was a huge loss that Peltier couldn't speak to the crowd at that time.
"This photo speaks a 1,000 words to me," Belcourt wrote in the post, "About what children and young people are asking for and the unwillingness to listen. Today Autumn Peltier told the PM she was unhappy with him and his decision on Kinder Morgan. She told him the waters need protecting. She gave him her copper vessel from her own bundle and her families bundle. She had a speech, but it seems they only had time on the schedule for her to present a gift. What a huge loss that we didn't take the time to listen to this young girl speak as what she has to say is powerful."
After the gift exchange on Tuesday, Trudeau told the gathering in a speech that he understood some were unhappy with his decisions on the pipelines, but that he felt the government could still achieve reconciliation with Canada's First Nations, despite having disagreements.
After hearing Trudeau say she would protect the water, Peltier said she still has hope.
"I just really hope he will because I can’t really say that he will or not, so I can just pray that he will protect the water," she told APTN.
Full text of Autumn Peltier's speech:
There have been others before me that have come to advocate for the environment and dedicated their lives to the environment.
It makes me sad that elders had spent a lifetime advocating for Mother Earth years before me.
I wonder if, when I am 70 or 80, will I have spent my life advocating and nothing has been done.
I should not be standing here right now worrying about my future and my children and grandchildren’s future. I have trust and belief in my prayers, leadership and tobacco, especially after many of our tribal nations gathering at Standing Rock, where we had victory.”
I would like you to think for a moment how long can you live without air?
But most importantly everything and everyone needs water.
Mother Earth has been in existence for billions of years and it has taken us less than a century to destroy her.
Mother Earth doesn’t need us but we need Mother Earth. Climate change is probably going to be here for a few more decades and that means we have a few more decades to work together.
It breaks my heart when I hear broken promises by our federal government.
We know climate change isn’t going to change tomorrow. But tomorrow is a new day and we can try to sit together and work together to discuss other ways we can save the environment.
Our people and our land have been through enough from what I’ve been learning. This land is not for sale. The pipelines still pose a danger to our water.
After time, pipelines erode, they rot and break down. There have been pipelines breaking all over.
Water is a force of nature. It is powerful and in time it has the ability to rot and break metal down.
I don’t agree with the underground pipelines. They are still polluting our water. It’s time for humanity to stop terrorizing Mother Earth and give her time to heal.
We came together for Standing Rock and we can certainly come together for water. I hope we can stand together in unity. I would like to take this opportunity to offer up a water song.