Citation of Lifetime Achievement, 2006
Inuit Circumpolar Conference Foundation Canada, $5,000 award
"Our emotional, spiritual and cultural well-being and health depend on protecting the land," says Watt-Cloutier. "We cannot find our way with band-aid solutions. For Inuit, the environment is everything."
Sheila Watt-Cloutier has a magnificent view from her living room window in Iqaluit.
In late March, the scene — a classic Arctic vista of snow-covered Frobisher Bay —
typically stirs her deepest feelings of connection to the Northern landscape. "Every day
when I wake up, I know that I am an Inuk woman who gets life from the bay," she
says. "There is a living energy that comes from our land."
This year, however, the much-loved –22°C cold and the vital snow cover, which afford
such essential activities as travel, have been interrupted by days where temperatures have
soared above 6°C and patches of exposed brown soil bruise the landscape. After the heavy
rains of an abnormally warm February, the tundra was encased in a crystalline glaze. "The
last day of February, we had lightning," says Watt-Cloutier, incredulous. "We rarely get
lightning, even in summer. We were expecting blizzards and snow. Without snow, where
do the seals make dens for their pups? The caribou can't eat ice-covered lichen, and so
they've gone north. We are worried they will be weak, and the calves won't be born healthy in the spring."
Whether it's blizzards or hurricanes or floods and heat waves, extreme weather events
due to climate change are headline news in Southern Canada. In Nunavut, however, the
effects of global warming are destroying the Inuit way of life. And Watt-Cloutier, in her
role as chair of the international Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), is confronting the
climate-change beast. She has placed her name as principal plaintiff on a petition to the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and is requesting relief from human rights
violations due to the world's most pressing environmental problem. "For every one degree
the temperature increases per year globally, it's more like three to five degrees in the Arctic,"
she says. "For us, this is a monumental change."
Born in 1953 in Kuujjuaq, Que., Watt-Cloutier lived a traditional Inuit life until she
attended school in Nova Scotia at age 10. "I travelled only by dogsled for the first
decade of my life," she recalls. Studies at Montréal's McGill University in psychology and
sociology led to work as a translator at Ungava Hospital in Nunavik and as an educational
and health-care advocate. Her community-based endeavours culminated in two landmark
projects: an influential report on Nunavik's educational system entitled "Silatunirmut:
The Pathway to Wisdom" and a youth-awareness video called Capturing Spirit: The Inuit
Journey. "I cannot separate my life from my work," she explains. "The Inuit strength is
our culture, and our young people need to stay in touch with tradition."
Watt-Cloutier entered the political arena in 1995 when she served for three years as
the corporate secretary of Makivik Corporation, overseeing the administration of the Inuit
claim under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. She was elected head of
ICC Canada from 1995 to 1998 and, during that time,
was spokesperson for a coalition of Northern people
who achieved a ban on the creation and use of persistent
organic pollutants, which were well-documented contaminants
of the Arctic food chain. "Inuit culture is
based on the tradition of the hunt," says Watt-Cloutier.
"We live off the land and eat wild food. Contaminants
entering our environment were a sign of the intrusive
effects of globalization."
In the hyperdeveloped Canadian South, it is all too
easy to put the environment "out there," as something
external to our lives. In the Arctic, however, the environment
is the way of life. Degradation is writ large on the
landscape and cannot be avoided with a trip in an SUV
to the nearest air-conditioned shopping centre. "Our
emotional, spiritual and cultural well-being and health
depend on protecting the land," says Watt-Cloutier. "We
cannot find our way with band-aid solutions. For Inuit, the environment is everything."
Watt-Cloutier's bold stand on climate change could
be the defining moment of her environmental career. The
strategy took shape in 2002, shortly after she became
chair of the international ICC, which represents 155,000
Inuit in Canada, the United States, Russia and
Greenland. Watt-Cloutier's chosen symbol of the
climate-change devastation is the traditional Inuit
hunt. Much more than a source of sustenance,
the hunt is an Inuit rite of passage that teaches
young people essential life lessons. "People might
ask who needs to hunt anymore," says Watt-
Cloutier. "The hunt is a powerful experience that
sustains us spiritually and culturally. We gain wisdom
from the hunt. It teaches us to be brave and
to withstand stress, to be patient and creative. We
learn sound judgment through the hunt. Without those skills, one can't survive."
And survival is what the ICC petition is about.
Filed with the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights in December 2005, it seeks relief
from the impact of climate change resulting from
"actions and omissions of the United States." The
167-page petition is an absolutely breathtaking
legal document that delivers the responsibility for
climate change right to the doorstep of the world's most intractable offender, presenting a
detailed scientific analysis of energy consumption in the United States and describing that
country's slipshod climate-change policy. It provides an irrefutable examination of the
harmful effects of global warming on Arctic temperatures, geography, wildlife, human
health and culture and outlines the dire consequences for the Inuit hunting-based society
With its unexpected colour photographs, however, it is a poetical
journey through the past and present of Inuit culture and the natural
history of the North. But the petition's most brilliant tactic is
also its most poignant: for the first time, climate change has a
human face. "Until now, there has been no human connection
with climate change — just bureaucracies.
Few grasp it until they hear the stories," says Watt-Cloutier. "Climate
change affects every facet of Inuit life. We have a right to life,
health, security, land use, subsistence and culture. These issues
are the real politics of climate change."
Watt-Cloutier and her fellow petitioners now look forward to their chance to appear before the Commission. In
the meantime, she travels the world sharing the time-honoured environmental wisdom of
the Inuit people. Her term as ICC chair ends in July. Until then, she is the hunter, and the
Inuit people and millions of Canadians committed to environmental change are eager to
hear her news. "We are the early warning system for the entire planet," she says. "The work
we are doing is like another level of the hunt. We are the elder who scouts the land for conditions
before making a move. Until the hunter's return, the family waits with great anticipation.
In the same way, our people expect us to bring something home."