Putting Faces on Climate Change

Environmental and human rights activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier tells the story of the Inuit people in a bid to open hearts and minds to the effects of climate change.

by Karl Rettino-Parazelli

Born in Nunavik and internationally known for raising awareness about climate change and social justice, Sheila Watt-Cloutier doesn’t want to give up, no matter how big the current environmental challenge. In her recent book The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Fight to Protect the Arctic and Save the Planet from Climate Change (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) and in speeches given around the world, she tries to humanize global warming by telling the moving story of the communities she knows best, hoping it will convince people to take action – before it’s too late.

What message do you want to send when you speak this coming June in Montreal?

It’s the message that I have been trying to give to the world for the past 15 years: what happens in the Arctic matters to everyone else on the rest of the planet. What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. If the ice melts in the Arctic, it’s going to impact everything that’s happening elsewhere in the world.

For a long time, people in the South thought the Arctic was too far away to be concerned about the impacts of climate change. Do you think this perception has changed?

I think people are starting to get it. [...] Now that their properties are under water, that their homes are on fire, that their way of living is impacted, they understand. Until you really go through that kind of crisis, you don’t make the connection. It’s really too bad that we had to wait until today to come to that realization, but I guess it had to be.

Now that more people have made this connection, do you think it’s too late to reverse the situation?

I usually don’t talk about the science of it all, but what I do talk about is the fact that the Earth is a living, breathing entity, just like us. When we get really sick, there are ways we can change the course of the disease, and our body reacts to our intention to change. We can also do that, collectively, with our planet. We can stop the destruction and start the process of caring for it by doing things differently.

Over the course of your career, you fought hard for the Inuit people, denouncing the impacts of climate change on their lives. Could you describe how climate change affects them today?

We are a hunting people who rely on ice, snow and cold. We don’t just survive on it, we thrive on it. Our hunting culture is pretty much based on that cold, because the ice makes our highways. Everything about the cold is a life force for us. […] In the last couple of decades, the changes have happened really quickly. The ice is forming much later in the fall and breaking earlier in the spring. It’s also forming differently. The water is warmer, but you can’t tell with the naked eye how unsafe it is underneath. So it becomes harder to use the traditional knowledge of our ancestors, who were able to accurately read the conditions of the ice.

It’s also more difficult economically for hunters, now that snow and ice conditions in those areas mean they have to reroute and cover longer distances to get to the same spots they used to go to. This costs more money, requires more supplies, and it has an impact on their ability to provide this nutritious food from what I call our “organic supermarket”, which is nature.

These changes affect the way of life but, in your opinion, do they also affect the social conditions of the Inuit people?

Of course, everything is connected. Our Inuit community is already struggling. We see it on TV, in newspapers, in statistics, in reports: we are known to have social and health issues, one of the highest suicide rates in North America, and there’s a context for that. There’s a context of colonialism, that has taken away our ability to think for ourselves. We are learning that the answers and the solutions really lie in the incredible ingenuity and wisdom of our culture. And, as we grasp that, we realize that it’s not just the ice that is leaving. We realize that with this melting comes yet another wave of tumultuous change, and yet another trauma.

In your recent book, you talk about the “journey into the modern world” that has left “scars” in some northern communities. Do you think this shift to the modern world has also contributed to the current situation?

Yes, all of that has scarred us. It’s not so much the shift to the modern world, but the speed at which things have happened that has made things difficult for us, along with other historical traumas like the forced relocations. I come from a small community where, for the first ten years of my life, I only traveled by dog sled to visit my family and my community, and today I’m on jumbo jets going to Vancouver and many other places around the world. Whereas most societies have taken 300 or 350 years to adjust and adapt to this level of change, for us it’s been just one lifetime. [...] This shift has been an additional stressor on an already vulnerable and traumatic situation.

You’ve spent many years defending human rights, and climate change in particular. Do you think the issue you first raised in 2005 is now taken more seriously?

Yes. I believe that the work I did back then was ahead of its time. People were saying: “What? Climate change and human rights? How is that?” People are used to individual rights being violated, but they are not used to hearing that collective rights can also be violated in the way that ours were and are.

It took about five years before climate change and human rights became a mainstream subject. [...] Things shift, things change. The United Nations has issued very strong declarations making that connection. So I think the question is taken more seriously now, but there’s a “but”. The conventions that are adopted at the United Nations annual Climate Change Conferences rarely contain any mention of human rights. One year we move forwards on that front, and the next year we move backwards. A lot more needs to be done.

Would you say you are optimistic about the future?

Yes, I am. Without that optimism, I could not continue doing what I do; I would have burned out a long time ago. I tire more easily as I get older but, at the same time, this work and the connection with others who pursue the same goals sustains me. [...] I don’t think I’ll be giving up anytime soon.

Do you think your efforts have made a difference?

I believe they have. [...] When I speak to audiences in Canada or in the United States, people want to hear the human story of climate change. That’s what I do: I humanize the issue of climate change. [...] I call it my “quiet revolution”. When people hear my story, it gets them thinking about what could be done. It’s slower, it’s not always visible, but I think it’s having an effect on people.