Sep 20, 2020
TIFF Youth For Change Interview Transcript with Greta Thunberg & Autumn Peltier
TIFF held a Youth for Change virtual event where they interviewed Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg & Anishinaabe water activist Autumn Peltier. Read the interview transcript here.
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Hello everyone. And welcome to the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. I’m Cameron Bailey. I’m the artistic director and co-head, and it’s my pleasure to introduce you to this important conversation at Bell Digital Talks and our moderator, Naomi Klein. Naomi is an award winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of seven books that have been translated into over 35 languages. They include No Logo, The Shock Doctrine, This Changes Everything, and most recently, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, which is available in stores and online. Naomi is senior correspondent for The Intercept, a Puffin Writing Fellow at Type Media Center, and is the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. I hope you enjoy this important conversation. Over to you, Naomi.
Thank you so much, Cameron. And good morning, afternoon, and evening, everyone, wherever you are in the world. Welcome to this very special conversation with Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg as they discuss their individual work, which is being celebrated in two new films from the festival. I Am Greta is one, and The Water Walker is the other.
A little bit about our guests. Autumn Peltier is a 15 year old Anishinabek clean water activist from Wilkwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada. In 2019, she was appointed Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek nation, which includes 40 First Nations across Ontario. She has been nominated three times for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
Greta Thunberg is a 17 year old climate activist from Stockholm. In 2018, she began a lonely picket outside the Swedish Parliament calling for action on the climate crisis. It eventually inspired student strikes at schools and communities around the world. She addressed the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 before becoming Time Magazine’s youngest ever Person of the Year, and much more.
One of the things that struck me watching these two films that profile each of you is that a kind of climax comes during each one of them in the huge climate strikes that took place almost exactly one year ago, which brought millions of people into the streets. And there’s also footage of each of you in the films addressing the United Nations. But it is such very different journeys that brought each of you to these moments. Greta, in so many ways, you arrived there by challenging the basic assumptions of the culture that you grew up in and that surrounds all of us. The culture of endless consumption and economic growth, and also living in a perpetual now, not thinking about either the past or the future. And the film tells the story of how you challenge those values, first inside your own family, and then radiating outward from there.
Autumn, you arrived at your podium through a very different journey, in so many ways carrying and protecting your family’s wisdom and culture with you and protecting those values and bringing them to the world in defiance of the dominant culture. And we see that in every way that you walk in the world. You are so rooted and grounded carrying this intergenerational message and your ancestors are always with you and you talk about them so much. So Autumn, I want to start there. Tell us about the phrase Water Walker, the title of the film, what it means to you, and also what your hopes for this film are. What you want people to take from it.
Autumn Peltier: (03:56)
Can you repeat that actually, because it kind of cut out.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I was just asking you to tell us about the title of the film, the phrase, Water Walker. What it means to be a Water Walker and what your hopes are for this film as it enters the world, what you want people to take from it.
Autumn Peltier: (04:17)
Well, the meaning of the name of the film, The Water Walker, is my auntie Josephine [Mondawmin 00:04:26], who passed away about a year ago now, who mentored me to do this work, she created something called the Waterwalk. And pretty much she was answering a call to action because the First Nations peoples were noticing that there’s drastic change in the land and the water from, I’m going to say 50 years ago, around that time. And so pretty much they were noticing changes in the water in the First Nations communities and when she entered her call to action, it was to create the Waterwalk, so you’re raising awareness when you’re walking around a body of water and you’re praying for the water. And so pretty much, that’s kind of the meaning behind the Water Walker. And yeah, it’s a really huge honor to be considered one as well.
And what are your hopes for the film? What are you hoping people take from it in this moment? We have water pounding coasts with these record breaking storms in the Gulf Coast right now. On the other hand, I’m in British Columbia and water finally washed away the smoke that we’ve all been breathing in the wildfires. What is the overarching message you hope people take?
Autumn Peltier: (05:48)
Well, I’m going to start that by saying that everyone needs water because we are all one and it’s a basic human right. Nobody should have to go without clean drinking water. And really what I hope for, what I hope to come out of this is that we can all come together, creating awareness and working together, because this is pretty much our future that we’re working for here. And everyone coming together to protect the land and the water and standing together and creating more awareness about the First Nations issue in Canada.
Thank you so much. Greta, I would love to hear you speak about what it has been like in this period for you under the COVID lock downs, and I know it’s been lifting a little bit lately. But for a while now you have been making this very clear call to treat climate as if it is an emergency, and I think that that demand a year ago may have seemed a little abstract. Right? And we saw governments declare a climate emergency and pass a resolution, but not having that aligned very much with what they actually do. Right? In Canada, they passed a climate emergency resolution and bought a pipeline. So what have you learned from watching the world respond to COVID and are we seeing what it looks like to treat an emergency like an emergency, and how could that translate into climate action?
Greta Thunberg: (07:23)
Well, it is exactly as you say. I mean from day one, we’ve been saying we need to treat the climate crisis like a crisis, and we need to listen to the science. And we’ve just been repeating that. And people have asked us, ” [inaudible 00:07:42] the climate [inaudible 00:07:42].” And we have always said, “We just simply needs to treat the economy crisis like a crisis.” And people haven’t quite understood that. And they said like, “Yeah, but what specifically?” Because that has been so vague, but I think that now the response to the Corona crisis, the Corona tragedy, really puts that into a different perspective and it shines a light on that the climate crisis has actually never once been treated as a crisis, as an emergency.
Greta Thunberg: (08:16)
And it just builds on this dissonance that we have tried to highlight for so long, and maybe it will become more clear to people that this is a very unsustainable situation and that we are not, that it’s an absurd situation. So I think that the Corona crisis might change the way that we perceive and treat crises. Because, yeah, it has set a very clear example.
Certainly we see that huge resources are there, become available, and that governments have certain capacities that they haven’t used when it comes to climate.
Have certain capacities that they haven’t used when it comes to climate.
Greta Thunberg: (09:05)
Yeah. And especially that’s overnight social norms can change completely. Now, it feels like when you see a picture of people being too close, you think, “Oh, corona,” because the media has framed it that way. I mean, the social norm has shifted the attitude, the approach, I mean, to it. And it really is very hopeful because it shows that we can really change and once something like this happens, we can change.
Autumn,, does that resonate with you as you’ve watched society change behaviors in this period?
Autumn Peltier: (09:58)
Yeah. Well, the way I kind of look at this is seeing how we’ve all come together so quickly for an issue like this. And then I think back on issues back here in North America, why can’t we come that quick together for specific issues like the drinking water crisis? And I also look at it as if let’s just say a big city like Ottawa, the capital Canada, how fast they would act on cleaning and being able to get that ability back. And so the way I look at it is, why can’t we act that fast on an issue like this?
Yeah. And I think it does show that what gets declared a crisis, what gets declared an emergency, is subjective. It’s an expression of power, as you say. If it affects powerful people, they tend to see it as a crisis. Something else, and these are very different films, the two films about each of you. And as I said, your journeys are so different. They’re both beautiful films, amazing films. But there is this phenomenon in both of them where you have both of you carrying these very transformational messages about how we live. And you have these politicians who don’t want to change in the face of those messages, but yet want something from you, want photographs with you, want to be seen with you.
And autumn, you had that experience at a very young age, with Justin Trudeau. And Greta, you’ve had that experience with pretty much every leader on the planet now. So I’d love to hear both of you talk about this tension of watching a film about you, Greta, it’s as much a film about celebrity culture as it is about climate, as in a way you get offered celebrity instead of action. Can you talk about that, Greta, and what it’s like watching the film?
Greta Thunberg: (12:06)
Yeah, of course it is like that. And I think that Nathan, the director, wanted to really portray this celebrity culture that we live in and really show how absurd it is that instead of focusing on the climate, instead of listening to the message, to the scientific message, which is clearly not getting through. People are instead listened to and talking about me, wanting to take pictures with me, and people like me and alternate climate activists, because it just feels more convenient. And you don’t have to… Because if you post next to a climate activist, you can say, “Oh yes, I care so much about the climate.” And then you don’t have to do anything. But I think that by focusing so much on me as an individual, because I feel like the film, it could be much, much more about the climate. And maybe it should be because it shouldn’t be more about me, but by also doing that, but showing how absurd is that we are focusing on me, that this cannot be left to individuals. It is too much responsibility for people like us, like me and Autumn, and that it is not up to us children. They really tried to show the truth, that it is so much responsibility that is being put on children.
Certainly. Yeah, that definitely comes across. Autumn, what are your reflections on this question? And in the film, you talk about struggling also with jealousy, from your peers who see your work as within that lens of, “Well, Autumn’s getting all the attention,” as opposed to the message itself?
Autumn Peltier: (14:07)
Yeah. Well, when it comes to this, I kind of think of it as… Well, when it comes to trying to talk to bigger people like politicians, I find it’s… With them because how different our level of, I guess you could say, importance are… Matter because let’s just say, “You’re only 14 years old, or you’re only 15 years old. Why does what you’re saying matter?” But I find it’s a lot stronger when the message is coming from a child because children shouldn’t be having to speak up on these types of issues. And when it comes to first nations issues in Canada, we never really get any justice to what we’re trying to ask.
Autumn Peltier: (15:00)
We’ll seek help for. For example, there are still communities in Canada, there’s still hundreds of communities in Canada, that still can’t drink their water. Some of them for over 25 years. And why is that so hard? Why is it so hard to just at least try to find a solution for them to not live so long like that? Because like I said before, nobody should have to live that way because water is a basic human right. And no matter how rich or poor or the color of our skin is, everybody needs water. Everybody still needs water to survive. So.
Well, that brings me to I think another common element in your journeys, which is the importance of voices that see the world differently. Autumn, you’re bringing a way of seeing and a way of knowing that has been passed on to you from your ancestors. And you’re going into spaces that where people don’t see water as sacred and don’t look at the environment as something that we are a part of. It’s seen as something that is kind of out there and separate. And you’re bringing that lens into these spaces, and I think it has a huge impact. It is you’re a youth, but it’s also that indigenous perspective.
And beyond celebrity, as a message Greta, and in the film about you, there’s quite a lot about autism and neurodiversity, and the fact that your brain is wired a little bit differently, and that you talk about that changing the way you see the world. So I would love to hear both of you reflect on the importance of difference in solving these huge problems, that we’re not going to solve it with everybody thinking the same way. Who wants to start? Greta, I’ll put you on the spot.
Greta Thunberg: (17:06)
Well, we are facing a crisis that is like nothing we’ve ever faced before. Humanity has never faced such a crisis before. We are facing many crises that are both… I mean, all of these are symptoms of the biggest sustainability crisis that we ended up living sustainable. And since this is such a new… I mean, we don’t know how to solve this, because this is such a complex issue. And to do that, we need people who think outside the box. We need to think about new things, new ways. It is absurd to think that we can solve such a crisis by thinking and acting the way that we have always done. And that’s why we need differences. We need people who are different. We need diversity, and yeah, it’s not more complicated than that. We need diverse…
Greta Thunberg: (18:03)
Yeah, it’s not more complicated than that. We need diversity and we need new perspectives.
Thank you. Autumn, what about you?
Autumn Peltier: (18:17)
Well, my perspective comes from an indigenous perspective and that’s the way I look at this crisis and this issue. And so pretty much why I kind of chose water as something I really wanted to act on was because the way my people look at it is as when we’re in the womb as a fetus, we’re living in that sacred water for nine months. And that’s the only reason we are here today is because we come from water. And so that’s why it’s become so important for me to speak up on this issue because I have learned the connection and the sacred connection towards water.
Autumn Peltier: (18:59)
And so also being born as, it’s called an [foreign language 00:01:05], which pretty much you can say is an indigenous person. Being born an indigenous person we’re automatically given that right and responsibility to protect the land and the water. And so that’s kind of how I look at this issue. And also it’s our relationship with the land and water, because also the way we look at it is as the water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. And so it’s kind of like so much has already been taken from my people, and it’s hard to think that now we barely have access to any clean drinking water.
In both of your journeys, you’ve been given these platforms to speak to the powerful. Right? To speak to prime ministers, to speak at the United Nations. And one of the things that I’ve heard from both of you is that while it’s unclear whether or not you’re changing the adults, it is clear that you’re changing other kids, that you’re changing other young people. And so even if the platform is in this sort of very adult, powerful world, the microphone is at the United Nations or the European Parliament or wherever, the effect has been in schools, on the streets. Can you talk about what it has meant to you to find other young people around the world in this struggle? Well, I’ll start with you Greta.
Greta Thunberg: (20:42)
Yeah. These changes are not going to come from the top down, like you said. It isn’t going to be the politicians and people in power who suddenly goes, “Oh shit, there’s a climate crisis. We need to start acting.” That’s not how it works. But by influencing people in general, we can build up that pressure and make the elected officials act because that’s how a democracy works. And that’s what we have seen that more and more people are starting to slowly, slowly become aware of the climate crisis and especially young people, just like you said.
Greta Thunberg: (21:32)
And I think to answer your question, I think it was a bit of a surprise for me personally in the beginning, because I always been very odd, like a nerd. And I didn’t think that because my experience was that no one else cared about these kinds of issues. All other young people were selfish and only cared about themselves. But then when I started to see more and more young people becoming aware and found their voice, I became very positively surprised that actually so many other people, so many other young people cared about this and they just didn’t know how to act, how to put their concerns into something concrete.
And Autumn, you have found, I think, common ground with other young people who are in frontline communities where they also don’t have safe water, like in Flint, Michigan, and drawing connections between this. Collectively, I think young people around the world have this sense that your future is under threat. But young people aren’t equally impacted by that threat in the sense that there are some young people who can’t even go to school and have the ability to drink water from the fountain. So that threat to the future is both a little far off and also immediate in the day to day. What’s it been like to find young people in so many different contexts, Autumn, who have that experience?
Autumn Peltier: (23:30)
Well, it’s actually, I see a lot of change from when I started my advocacy. And I feel like personally, when it comes to indigenous youth, I find that I do make a really good impression because considering the amount of intergenerational trauma that my people have gone through, we suffer from loss of culture and a lot of the youth are disconnected from who they really are and the loss of their cultural roots. And I think with the work I do is also empowering them because I’ve noticed a lot more indigenous youth standing up, and that makes me feel really proud because I’m kind of helping, like mentoring them to know that we are still here, our culture is still here, and we need to fight for keeping our culture and the water alive. I guess, yeah. So it’s really empowering for me personally as well.
Considering that so much of your work has been in the physical world, getting people into the streets, getting people together, I’d love to hear both of you talk if you don’t mind about what this period where activism is so constricted, where it’s not possible to have the same kind of large gatherings. What does this mean for the movement going forward for each of you? Autumn, I’ll start with you.
Autumn Peltier: (24:57)
Well, kind of, I feel like social media has a really big play in our activism and advocacy, and I think that’s where a lot of it actually goes. And I feel like it has a bigger impact when it goes through social media because everyone’s on social media and a lot of the youth, our generation is using social media constantly every day. And so that’s where a lot of our messages are seen and heard, and that’s kind of where we can continue to raise awareness. And, yeah.
Do you share that Greta or do you feel that some of the power is being lost by not being able to be face to face?
Greta Thunberg: (25:44)
Well, of course social media is a huge resource, which really helps and which has helped mobilize so many people, especially so many young people. But of course you lose that feeling when it’s not physical. Of course, there’s a risk of that. But we’ve just had to adapt and you just simply have to adapt and find new ways because, yeah, these crisis aren’t disappearing. They are, to the contrary, even more urgent now than they were before. But I mean, it’s not just the climate movements or the environmental movement or the movement for indigenous rights, for instance, that have had to step back. Because in such a crisis, all other issues are being put on hold. I mean, almost. And now, as we’re sort of starting to open up again, then all these different movements are going to be very desperate to get the focus back on them again. And I just hope…
Greta Thunberg: (27:03)
… To get the focus back on them again. I just hope that that will not lead to conflict things, but that we can rather understand that we are fighting for the same cause. We are fighting for justice and we are fighting for sustainability, however you want to define sustainability, and that we will start working together instead of trying to … If we start fighting for to get the spotlights on just our movement, because there’s no such thing because we are all depending on each other.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I think that’s an incredibly important message, and obviously in some of the work that the school strike movement has been doing lately during lockdown is drawing more connections, I think, between movements fighting for social justice and environmental justice and building a broad coalition. Greta, I’m struck that we’re talking on this platform. You have been one of the most vocal critics of air travel in the world, and that’s an example-
Greta Thunberg: (28:19)
Actually, I have never criticized air travel. I have just said that I’m not doing it myself.
Not doing it yourself. Yeah. Yes. But I think this is a good example, this conversation today, and a lot of what we’re experiencing during COVID, of different ways of living that do lower emissions. Right? Before we leave, we just have a couple of minutes left, but as we try to navigate living with this virus, which we’re still living with, are there any lessons that you feel people need to really carry with them going forward? I’ll start with you, Autumn.
Autumn Peltier: (29:06)
With going forward, I think we just need to continue to empower youth because, like I said earlier, I find that youth have a strong message and when the message is coming from a youth it is a lot stronger. Yeah, I just think empowering youth is really important and that is what we are currently doing right now. I think with our documentaries, I think we’re going to empower a lot more youth, so it’s going to have a really good impact.
Great. Last words, Greta?
Greta Thunberg: (29:39)
Yeah. Regarding your question, I think we should not confuse the message taking during the Corona pandemic with climate action because they are pretty much nothing alike and this is a tragedy and nothing else. The climate crisis is a completely different crisis, but there, of course, things that we can take away, for example, how we treat and perceive a crisis.
Greta Thunberg: (30:09)
Also that’s something that has become more clear now is that we cannot put a price on a human life, because people in power have said now themselves during Corona, that we’re not going to reopen the economy too fast because you cannot put a price on a human life. They have said that themselves, and once they put those words into their own mouths, then that changes quite a lot of things, that opens up a completely new dimension.
Greta Thunberg: (30:43)
Also, one other thing that we have suddenly started to realize is that we are actually depending on science and scientists. When scientists sound the alarm, we better listen, and yeah, just that we need to care for each other.
Yeah. Those are, I think, great words for us to end on. I just want to thank you so much for both of your work. I think it’s clear in both of these remarkable films, and I really urge people to watch them, because I think that they are really rare glimpses of what it means to take on these burdens. As you said, Greta, it is too much. It shows that this isn’t normal, it isn’t okay for young people to be asked to carry this burden. It needs to be shared with everyone, but the films are really remarkable and you are both just wonderful, wonderful leaders, and I think visionaries in your own right. I want to thank you for your courage and sharing your wisdom with us today. I want to thank Tiff for hosting this conversation, and all of you for tuning in. Have a great what’s left of your day.