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Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Inuk leader from Canada visits UW

May 31, 2014

Above: Sheila Watt-Cloutier (left) with Jen Marlow, founder of the Climate Justice Project, Three Degrees Warmer, at the UW School of Law. (3/14)

by Annie Banel, MPA Candidate, Evans School of Public Affairs; Canadian Studies Center Reporter

Watt-Cloutier opened with a greeting in Inuktitut to underline the importance of language in the Inuit culture. Though she first spoke English at six years old, Watt-Cloutier had to later relearn her native language after being sent away for school. Watt-Cloutier was pleasantly surprised to see Mick Mallon in the audience and she expressed her appreciation for his work teaching Inuktitut alongside his wife Alexina Kublu. Mallon is currently the Inuktitut instructor for our FLAS scholars, Walter O’Toole and Caitlyn Evans.The Future of Ice lecture series came to a fitting end with Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s lecture, “The Right to be Cold” on March 11, 2014. In her talk, Watt-Cloutier reframed the dramatic climate changes in the Arctic as a human rights issue. Watt-Cloutier is a Canadian Inuit activist and Former Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her work highlighting global warming as ecological issue and human challenge.

Watt-Cloutier described the Arctic as an area of utmost importance on the mind of many policy makers and researchers. The most dramatic effects from globalization are taking place in the circumpolar Arctic, from toxins in the food chain affecting nursing mothers to the effects of UV radiation from the weakened ozone layer seen in the epidemic of cataracts and skin problems. Watt-Cloutier calls the people of the Arctic the “ground-truthers” who confirm firsthand the observations of climate models and satellites.

Watt-Cloutier calls her work to bring a legal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2005 her “most caring act.” Watt-Cloutier said everything she does is to pass on the Inuit respect for environment and culture to her grandson. By working with hunters and elders from Inuit communities to file the petition Watt-Cloutier said they spoke “from a position of strength, not victimhood.” She sought to refocus the climate change debate on “our common humanity” in order to find solutions that will give future generations “better chances to embrace life.”

As the “cooling system for the planet is starting to break down,” Watt-Cloutier sees the melting ice bringing new interests North just as the Inuit are coming out of the “first wave of tumultuous change” of modernization.

In her lifetime, Watt-Cloutier witnessed the community oriented and traditional society of the highly independent Inuit people transformed. Watt-Cloutier said the Inuit are a uniquely adaptable people and “have weathered the storm of modernization remarkably well, but enormous changes are not without consequence.” Watt-Cloutier sees the loss of the predictability of their climate combined with historical trauma as the root causes of the health problems that plague the circumpolar Arctic, including substance abuse and suicide.

For the Inuit, unpredictable weather is a food security and safety issues. Watt-Cloutier explained that snow and ice serve as highways to hunt and fish and so unpredictable weather events cut off access to the traditional country foods Inuit have thrived off of for millennia. Coastal erosion and melting permafrost mean buckling homes and the relocation of entire villages. Glaciers used for drinking water are now unreliable.

Watt-Cloutier stated that historical traumas inflicted on the Inuit have “eroded our sense of identity and self-worth.” This loss has “translated into monumental health and social problems.” Watt-Cloutier said she is shocked by how few have heard of the historical trauma of the Inuit, including; forced relocations in the name of sovereignty, dog slaughters, boarding schools, sexual abuse by those in authority, and the collapse of the seal skin market. Watt-Cloutier connected the collective pain felt from these traumas and the loss of food security to high suicide rates through a closer understanding of the hunter in Inuit culture.

According to Watt-Cloutier, the hunter is a “revered elder who personifies a remarkable person, calm, reflective, holds a great deal of wisdom and judgment, and knows how to pass these skills to the next generation—not just the technique of hunting but the patience to withstand stressful situations and not be impulsive.” Watt-Cloutier said that suicide is itself an impulsive action and the land and ice teach that impulsivity does not pay off. In her words, “these skills help you in those times of great darkness, facing the stressors of the modern world, to be persistent and resilient in stressful situations.” One key value of ice is that is serves as the platform to teach this patience and resiliency to the next generation.

The shortened hunting season and unpredictable weather have forced the Inuit to buy expensive imported and processed food and have cost them this essential means of passing on the character skills of the revered hunter. Increased rates of diabetes and other food related illnesses as well as increased reliance on government support are related to the loss of country food and the high costs of imported food.

Despite these dire challenges, Watt-Cloutier remains optimistic for she recognizes the brilliance in Inuit culture and she sees how the troubled atmosphere is “bringing us together and connecting as family to understand what is happening to us.”

Photographs of breathtaking Arctic beauty played behind Watt-Cloutier throughout her talk. She paused to explain how her favorite picture, of an Inuit man’s smiling face flecked with snow, captures the “joy of being out in Arctic and the right to be cold.” While the cold is daunting to outsiders, Watt-Cloutier said that for the Inuit, “thriving from the cold connects and bonds us as a strong people, resilient, and brilliant to build homes of snow so warm that babies can sleep in them naked.” In her work, Watt-Cloutier strives to find the “resonance of truth with one another” and foster commonalties. She is motivated by people “getting it” and seeks to use human stories to mobilize people.

Of her time at the University of Washington, Watt-Cloutier remarked, “I have been fed very deeply by these two days and nourished in so many ways.” She was especially pleased with the surprise gift of an Acadian band playing music from Nunavut. Watt-Cloutier’s mother was an accordion player and she felt as if her mother was present and saying “You go, girl.”

The “Future of Ice” Initiative represents a commitment by the University of Washington to invest in knowledge about the polar regions. Future of Ice also provides a framework through which to foster collaborative partnerships with stakeholders in the polar regions, where the triple challenges of climate change, new economic pressures, and rapid social and political disruption intersect.