Seeing human and climate trauma as one

Sheila Watt-Cloutier wearing a fur-lined parka stands smiling in a snow-covered Arctic landscape.

“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”

— Sheila Watt-Cloutier

By Kelly Haggart

Distant factories and vehicles pump carbon into the atmosphere — and Arctic hunters fall through the ice. For more than 20 years, Inuit environmental and human rights advocate Sheila Watt-Cloutier has worked tirelessly to connect the dots and wake people up to the human costs of the modern world’s reckless behaviour and inaction.

“We are all accustomed to the dire metaphors used to evoke the havoc of climate change,” she writes in her moving memoir, The Right to Be Cold, “but in many parts of the Arctic the metaphors have already become a very literal reality.”

The Right to Be Cold was one of five books vying to be crowned “the one book Canadians need now” in CBC Radio’s 2017 Canada Reads competition. Singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, who championed it in the March 27-30 battle of the books, hopes it “takes Canada by storm,” unites the nation and gives Canadians a common understanding that helps us change the world together as never before.

With the planet warming twice as fast at the poles, climatic change has hit the North first, and more violently and visibly than in the rest of Canada. “As the permafrost melts, roads and airport runways buckle,” Watt-Cloutier writes. “Homes and buildings along the coast sink into the ground and fall into the sea.” And Inuit hunters plunge through unreliable sea ice into the frigid Arctic waters.

In her years on the Inuit Circumpolar Council as its Canadian president (1995–2002) and international chair (2002–2006), Watt-Cloutier used her considerable powers of persuasion to sound the alarm about the importance of Arctic ice. That once-solid foundation of Inuit culture was, as she writes, a “health barometer” for the planet — and it was melting.

A human face

Watt-Cloutier calculated that by highlighting the human and cultural consequences of apparently remote and abstract issues, she could make people (and politicians) care. “Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth,” she writes, “and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”

“The idea of ‘the right to be cold’ is less relatable than ‘the right to water’ for many people," she also writes. "[But] as hard as it is for many people to understand, for us Inuit, ice matters. Ice is life.”

We’ve moved beyond climate change to climate trauma, Watt-Cloutier contends, and the human suffering in wounded Inuit communities reflects that trauma. But when she delivered the Alex Trebek Distinguished Lecture on May 5, a highlight of uOttawa’s 2017 Alumni Week, she also sounded a hopeful note. Counting on people’s innate concern for others, she trusts that our empathy and common humanity can still save us.

We all have the right to be protected from climate change, she says, and we are all in this together. But we can’t just think our way out of this crisis — we need to feel our way through it. We need to rediscover that everything is connected, and join forces to protect the things we love, including diverse cultures, our own local environments — and Arctic ice.

La couverture de l’ouvrage The Right to Be Cold, écrit par Sheila Watt-Cloutier

From ice age to space age

In her memoir, Watt-Cloutier describes how the modern world arrived in the North at breakneck speed. “In a sense, Inuit of my generation have lived in both the ice age and the space age,” she writes.

Born in the small community of Kuujjuaq, in the Inuit region of Nunavik, northern Quebec, she spoke only Inuktitut before learning her first words of English in school at age six. She travelled only by dog team until, at age 10, she was separated from her family and flown south for school.

Arriving to live for two years with a white family in Nova Scotia was “a brutal shock.” The three following years, spent at a “residential-type” vocational school in Churchill, Manitoba, were less traumatic, because her older sister was also there.

Rights-based approach

As well as recounting her political journey, Watt-Cloutier opens up in her memoir about its personal toll, including how it felt to be thrust into an extrovert’s role on the world stage. “Because I’ve had such a public profile for many years, most people don’t realize that I’m actually an introvert,” she writes.

But given the opportunity to fight for the survival of her culture, she embraced the challenge. She learned to navigate international forums and to speak their dry, technical language. She also succeeded in moving the conversation forward with her rights-based approach, convincing many that climate change and other environmental assaults on the North were “emphatically a cultural issue.”

By speaking from the heart, Watt-Cloutier has always helped her audiences connect to issues on a personal level. “It has been my intention with every talk I give to compel citizens to act and bring about change,” she writes. “This will require us to move how we conceptualize this issue from the head to the heart, where all change happens.”

Read about previous speakers in the series, Leymah Gbowee and Thomas Friedman.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier received an honorary doctorate from uOttawa in 2008. Read the citation.

Derrière un podium, Sheila Watt-Cloutier sourit en regardant vers le haut.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier has won many honours, including a Right Livelihood Award in 2015. Photo: ©The Silent Photographer / The Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Main photo:
Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Photo: Stephen Lowe

Vêtue d’une veste inuite bordée de fourrure, Sheila Watt-Cloutier se tient derrière un lutrin, d’où elle parle en faisant des gestes. Une photo de son petit-fils dans un parka bordé de fourrure est projetée sur un écran derrière elle

Sheila Watt-Cloutier giving a talk in 2010, with one of her grandsons pictured on the screen behind her. Photo: Courtesy of Sheila Watt-Cloutier


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