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Winners (by year) > Sheila Watt-Cloutier 

Sheila Watt-Cloutier 
Photo:Stephen Lowe
Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Citation of Lifetime Achievement, 2006

Beneficiary: 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 and economy.

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."

Last updated: 2006

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