Book Re­view

Sheila Watt-cloutier has seen first-hand the dev­as­tat­ing changes wrought in the North in her life­time. For decades, she has been a pow­er­ful voice for the peo­ple and the land. Her mes­sage is ever more ur­gent

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS -

Sheila Watt-cloutier is a Cana­dian hero. Her book,

The Right to Be Cold, de­serves to be read by ev­ery­one in­ter­ested in Canada’s North

Sheila Watt-cloutier is a force of na­ture.

She is much more be­sides — a child of the Arc­tic, a sub­ject of south­ern colo­nial­ism, a daugh­ter, mother and grand­mother, a hu­man rights ac­tivist, an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, an au­thor, a cli­mate change war­rior. What she brings to these many roles is a voice of rea­son and pas­sion, anger and com­pas­sion, con­cern and hope­ful­ness. Her book, The Right to Be Cold, first pub­lished in 2015 (and avail­able in French as of this year), brings these roles to­gether in a pow­er­fully moving mem­oir that is also a man­i­festo, a call to ac­tion and a cri de coeur. It is also proof­pos­i­tive that Sheila Watt-cloutier is a Cana­dian hero. Not that she would say that.

The Right to Be Cold is a frank, in­spir­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally heart­break­ing per­sonal history. In the four years since it first ap­peared in English, it has only be­come more rel­e­vant. “Inuit of my gen­er­a­tion have lived in both the ice age and the space age.”

Born in the North in 1953, Watt-cloutier re­mem­bers trav­el­ling by dogsled as a lit­tle girl, as well as the hard­ships and chal­lenges of day-to-day life. She re­calls too the even harsher life in the south, where she was sent as a young teen for ed­u­ca­tion and then shuf­fled from place to place and sub­jected to the hu­mil­i­a­tions and degra­da­tions about which we now hear so much. She felt first-hand the pow­er­ful racism that has per­vaded Canada’s at­ti­tude to Inuit and other First Na­tions. She ex­pe­ri­enced the con­stant di­min­ish­ment of her cul­ture and her val­ues. “To me, that kind of trauma mir­rors the vi­o­lence that we are in­flict­ing upon our planet. You can’t sep­a­rate hu­man trauma and planet trauma; they are one and the same.”

Watt-cloutier re­sponded to her per­sonal trauma with re­solve, in­tel­li­gence and heart. She be­came an ac­tivist, she says, “lead­ing from strength, not fear or vic­tim­hood.” In that way, she can be a role model to the en­tire planet.

Watt-cloutier has wit­nessed the ac­cel­er­at­ing degra­da­tion of the north­ern en­vi­ron­ment. “The Arc­tic is a dif­fer­ent place than it was when I was a child. And while many of the changes are pos­i­tive, the jour­ney into the mod­ern world was not an easy one — and it has left its scars.” She has seen the dev­as­ta­tion to the land with the dis­ap­pear­ance of sea ice, the col­lapse of per­mafrost and ero­sion, and habi­tat loss, hu­man and an­i­mal. She and her fel­low cir­cum­po­lar ci­ti­zens know the cost. “We are a peo­ple who rely on the cold. For us, the ice and snow is our way of life. That’s what feeds us and sus­tains us. As hunt­ing, gath­er­ing and fish­ing peo­ple, for us, the ice rep­re­sents mo­bil­ity and trans­porta­tion. When the ice doesn’t form firmly enough or quickly enough in the fall and it breaks up early in the spring, then we can­not travel as safely and fre­quently and we can­not sup­port our fam­i­lies.”

Watt-cloutier has played many im­pres­sive roles: she has rep­re­sented Inuit at the re­gional, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional lev­els, in­clud­ing as in­ter­na­tional chair of the in­ter­na­tional Inuit Cir­cum­po­lar Con­fer­ence. She also has worked as an ad­vi­sor to Canada’s Ecofis­cal Com­mis­sion and a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Gov­er­nance In­no­va­tion. She draws on her her­itage, she says, to guide her. In her work and for all her pas­sion, she likens her­self to a hunter on the ice: “I try to em­body a spirit of calm and re­flec­tion and fo­cus.”

Watt-cloutier does not think of her­self as a cli­mate-change ac­tivist. “My work has led many to see me as an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist first and fore­most, some­thing that I do not con­sider my­self to be. Although I wouldn’t deny for a minute that the pro­tec­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment has been a huge fo­cus of my life and work for the last sev­eral decades, I came to this par­tic­u­lar mis­sion through the con­cern I had for our peo­ple and my great de­sire to pro­tect the Inuit way of life. On that front, there is still so much work to be done.”

In a re­cent in­ter­view for the Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Gov­er­nance In­no­va­tion, Watt-cloutier talked about the cli­mate change move­ment and the slow­ness with which the world is re­act­ing. More sto­ries that truly touch peo­ple are needed, she says, to aug­ment the sci­en­tific data. The ar­gu­ments have been “at a very in­tel­lec­tual level — lots of sci­ence and eco­nom­ics,” she ar­gues, “but they need a heart­beat.”

Sheila Watt-cloutier’s book, The Right to Be Cold, is just such a heart­beat, pow­er­ful and TRUE.—SELBY ORR

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