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
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