Fighting for the right to be cold

Sheila Watt-Cloutier puts a warm, persistent face on the north's environmental crisis


It’s just after 10 am one Monday at a bright, chatter-filled breakfast joint in east-end Toronto, and Sheila Watt-Cloutier is waiting on a small request: marmalade for her toast. So she asks the waitress – again – warmly.

The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, hailed as one of the world’s most influential environmental and human rights advocates, is known for being persistent, particularly when it comes to the right to be cold.

In her newly released memoir, The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and The Whole Planet, Watt-Cloutier takes us through the vibrant world she was born into near a former Hudson’s Bay outpost and abandoned U.S. military base in Nunavik, northern Quebec.

With her white RCMP father absent from her life, Watt-Cloutier was raised by her single mother and grandmother in the rich traditional Inuit hunting culture of her ancestors, where “ice is life.” 

But in a single generation, she has witnessed massive societal shifts, most shocking of them the melting landscape. As the terrain the Inuit depended on for millennia vanishes, they’ve have become the world’s sentinels, the early warning signals of a planet losing its central AC – and moral compass. Watt-Cloutier asks, “If we cannot save the frozen Arctic, how can we save the rest of the world?”

For many of us snuggled up near Canada’s southern border, climate change is still mostly an abstract idea dominated by distant images of melting glaciers and hungry polar bears. 

But Watt-Cloutier gives the effects of global warming a beating human heart and face. Thawing permafrost and thinning ice have meant dangerously unpredictable conditions for an entire culture in northern Canada. Hunters must go further and further afield in search of dwindling food sources, and increasingly fall through ice that would once have been safe.

Watt-Cloutier has spent the last decade petitioning world leaders to help them recognize climate change not as a threat to the politics of “business as usual” but as a menace to humanity and “cultural survival.”

The core of the problem, she says, putting down a forkful of her gluten-free eggs Benny, is our “othering” of each other. “There is nothing more destructive than seeing ourselves as different and separate from one another. This whole issue of climate change is very much about that.” 

It’s why people who hop in an SUV in Toronto fail to connect it to that Inuit hunter falling through the ice. And it’s why “nothing happens at climate negotiations,” say Watt-Cloutier. “‘What do we care if the ice is melting? We’re not eating seals. Let the Inuit adapt.'”

Alas, the Arctic isn’t Vegas, and whatever happens there doesn’t stay there. The effects are already fanning out across the globe. If we keep belching out climate-cooking emissions, she warns, people around the world, like the Inuit, will lose their ability to exercise their economic, social and cultural rights, too.

Thanks in large part to her work, which earned her the Nobel nomination, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a resolution in 2008 recognizing that “climate change… has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.”

Just don’t call Watt-Cloutier an environmental activist.

“I’m born into a culture in which environment is all-encompassing. It’s not just ‘Let’s save the trees,’ or ‘Let’s save the seal.’ Everything is interrelated. We are an extension of the land, we are the land, and the land is us. It’s what we call ‘sila,'” she continues, leaning in, “which is environment, but sila is also consciousness. Sila is wisdom.”

Ultimately, she says, “it’s the mother and grandmother in me” pushing her to show the world to see that erosion of the environment is related to the suicides, violence, self-destruction and addiction plaguing northern communities. “It’s through that feeling of compassion for one another that the world can change. We can override this political machinery with that energy.”

The key for Inuit survival now, she says, is to resist the pressures to open up the Arctic to drilling and focus on rooting their institutions in the culture of sustainability and resourcefulness that helped them survive and thrive for millennia. 

“A carrot is being dangled to a people who are extremely vulnerable.” There’s a definite contradiction, she notes, in looking to fossil fuels beneath the ice to pull Arctic communities out of poverty, when high CO2 levels threaten the very survival of their culture. 

“Why are we trusting these companies that have already created destructive paths and reputations around the world? Why would it be different for us in the Arctic?” 

But there are signs of resistance, she says with a smile. Just last month, the mayor of Clyde River took seismic testing companies exploring for oil to court. “More of that has to happen.”

As for the rest of Canada, “We have to continue to push very hard our own members of parliament to do the right thing before the next climate negotiations” in Paris in the fall.

Watt-Cloutier may no longer have official observer status at the UN since she stepped down as chair of the international arm of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, but she’s planning to wrangle her way onto the podium at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. 

“If I’m going, it’s to be given the floor for that high-moral-ground voice. We all need to be looking at ways we can address these issues that are not so bureaucratic and not so politically driven. Someone might say, ‘You’re dreaming in technicolor.’ Well, let’s do it. Let’s dream in technicolor. Now’s the time.” 

Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Making of a green hero 

Raised traditionally in Nunavik, northern Quebec, until she was abruptly sent away to school in Nova Scotia and then Churchill Falls, Manitoba. 

Studied counselling, education and human development at McGill.

Started as a hospital translator and education task force coordinator in Nunavik, lobbying to improve education and health care for her people. 

Instrumental in pushing for the 2001 global ban on persistent organic pollutants (think DDT and PCBs) as president of the Canadian arm of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Launched the world’s first international legal action on climate change in 2005, charging that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were violating the Inuit’s human rights. The legal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights failed, but it laid the groundwork for the UN Human Rights Council’s 2008 recognition of climate change’s impact on human rights.

Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for making climate change a human rights issue. Al Gore won it that year. 

adriav@nowtoronto.com | @ecoholicnation

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