Retreating Arctic Ice

Edited transcript of an interview with Peter Mansbridge and Sheila Watt-Clouthier about how retreating Arctic ice is endangering the Inuit way of life.

September 24, 2007

Edited transcript of an interview with Peter Mansbridge (PM) and Sheila Watt-Clouthier (SWC) about how retreating Arctic ice is endangering the Inuit way of life.

Sheila Watt-Clouthier is an activist and was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. She has brought prestige and acclaim to Canada's North for her fight to have climate change considered a human rights issue for the Inuit.


PM: One of the things I'm trying to understand is the relationship between the Inuit and the ice in terms of what's happening with climate change, global warming. At what point are the Inuit no longer Inuit because of retreating ice?

SWC: Well our entire culture, hunting culture, is based on the ice, the cold and the snow. And it has been that way for a millennium, and we don't only survive in the cold, we thrive in the cold. And that's the way it has been. So, with the changes that are happening in the Arctic, of course it's the snow and the ice that are the first to go. And for us it creates issues of safety and security foremost. Because nowhere else in the world does… the ice and snow represent mobility and transportation as it does for us here, Inuit on top of the world that depend on it. There's already changes, and there's already more accidents, and fatalities in fact. I don't speak just about Nunavut but the circumpolar world. Alaska is hit very hard, Canada the western part, Greenland. So these are the issues that we talk about. It isn't just a place for recreation. This is our livelihood that we're talking about.

PM: So you really are running the risk of losing who you are through this?

SWC: Oh yes. I define myself by what I eat really. Country food to me is precious and very much a part of my life, has been since I was born. I traveled only by dog team the first ten years of my life with my family. And that's how we survived. And we continue to have that close, close connection to our hunting way of life, but also especially to our country food, that is so nutritious to begin with. But for us I can't imagine getting to that stage one day to have to choose between our country food and our cultural heritage as we almost did with the toxins issue. And now with climate change it is the same thing. Are we going to get to the day where we are not going to be able to go out and hunt in my grandson's lifetime? He is ten years old and he is now learning to hunt and got his first caribou and seal this year. What will he see in his lifetime? And I think those are the real major concerns that I have. And that's why I've been trying to get the world to come onside in addressing this issue.

PM: We went to Clyde River, which I guess in some ways is not unlike many communities in the north, in that it's facing quite a few issues. Whether it's inadequate housing, extreme unemployment, high suicide rates amongst the young. And now this one. How do you prioritize, when you're facing that kind of a challenge?

SWC: Well, I don't disconnect any of it. You know, some people have asked, why do you focus so much on environment when we have so many problems at the societal level in the community. And of course, my whole background is in student counseling and addictions and human development issues and that's the background I come from before I entered into politics. I have never made the disconnect between what is happening in our communities with the high suicide rates and the dispiritedness and the addictions and the violence to environmental degradation of the arctic, the connection lies here. The hunting culture is really misunderstood. It is not well understood and in fact, it gets a really bad rap from animal rights or from people who really are squeamish about hunting. The hunting culture as I understood it as a child and still do, is a powerful training ground for young people. When you're out hunting, you're not just aiming the gun, skinning the seal, cutting up the meat, it's not just a technical issue here of killing the animals. It is really about teaching our children how to patient, courageous, withstand stress. How to be bold under pressure. How not to be impulsive. How to have sound judgment and ultimately to become wise. That's the natural teaching of a hunting culture. And so, if our young people are not getting that holistic way in which to prepare themselves for the opportunities and especially the challenges in life, such as the ones we're going through as a transition in culture, and our institutions who have come in have separated that holistic way of teaching our children and it's never reassembled elsewhere, then we have to, by all means as much as possible, keep our young people hunting to learn those skills. Because those skills of patience, bold judgments, wisdom, all of those, especially how not to be impulsive, which is very connected to suicide by the way, those kinds of character skills are very transferable to the modern world. And in fact if you see the young people that are making it, in our world, they are the ones that have a foot on the land hunting and being out there frequently. The ones that are more lost are the ones that don't have that opportunity anymore. So here we are from the first wave of tumultuous change in my lifetime, coming out the other side now, recognizing what's happened to our world, where we were once extremely highly independent, strong, with great dignity, where people wrote books about our child rearing practices because it was just - because it still is a remarkable way by observation, never in anger, all of that. And now here we've become highly in one lifetime dependent on substances, processes, institutions. And we're saying we need to look at this seriously as we're coming out the other side, as I said earlier, of modernization and recognizing what's happened. Then we realize the very thing that we need to be reaching to is those sound values and principles of our Inuit hunting culture, because it is that that is going to help create that foundation once again for our young people to get back on their feet, and really start to make better choices for themselves.

PM: Let me tell you about this fellow we met in Clyde River, Nick Illaq. He's one of the counselors there, who has taken a lead on the whole climate change issue, and he's invited scientists in, basically pleaded with them to come in to study what's going on. But he's doing this in a fashion, to try and decide how that community can adapt to the changes that are taking place. So not necessarily fighting it, but adapting to it. Now I know that you've said in the past that adaption has its limits. Where's the limit?

SWC: Well, we are an adaptable people, in fact everything has revolved around us being able to adapt to the seasons and to the different places, in pursuit of food. So we are definitely adaptable people. And that's one of our strong suits. But you know, the first wave took us by a huge wave in terms of the speed in which it happened. And it is as a result of that we are spinning still from this first wave. And so my concern, and my sense of urgency that I have given to the world on these issues, is because I can see with climate change, here comes a second wave of tumultuous change. And it's now going to be affecting the very thing that we are reaching to, to get back on our feet. And that's what really concerns me more than anything. Our hunters are probably going to fare better than our institutions, they already are, because they are brilliant. They know the land, they know the ice conditions, they are adapting as we speak. I think they will fare better, providing they are given the support, providing the institutions have the programs in place to help them to adjust and adapt through proper support structures. But I'm not quite sure how our institutions are going to be able to do that very well, very quickly, if the speed, the scale and the pace starts to happen quicker than we think with climate change.

PM: The other thing that our friend Nick told us, which I found a bit surprising. He was much more aggressive in dealing with, or suggesting that the Inuit themselves have got to fight global warming issues in terms of the contribution they're making to the problem. He talked about that while at the same time saying "we' re not here to finger point at the south, you know that's not for me, I'm not blaming anyone and I don't encourage others to blame anyone." Is he wrong in saying that?

SWC: I don't say he's wrong at all. I say we all have different views just like anyone else, any other peoples in the world. We don't have always a uniform voice in the Arctic. I have worked the other way. I have worked at the international level for 12 years. And the focus that I have really been working on is strategy. How does one get 150 countries, or 200 countries, to come onside. It takes a long time for these kinds of United Nations conventions to come together, not only to be signed, but to be ratified and then enforced. I use the example of a Stockholm Convention, the work that I did with the global community on getting the world to stop the toxins that end up in the Arctic sink, and ultimately in our bodies and the nursing milk of our mothers in higher doses than anywhere else. We became the recipients of these what we call the "dirty dozen", persistent organic pollutants. It took a long time to get the world to come to the day where the Stockholm Convention was signed, ratified and enforced. And so I know how long these things take. And so we can't be saying let's take our time, we will adjust and adapt as we are. The world has landed in the Arctic there's no doubt, in more ways than one. And I suspect it's going to come. It's presence is going to be felt even stronger as we see the Northwest Passage opening up and the resources that everybody seems to be eyeing from around the world now. Believe me, I think if we have had problems with pollutants and climate change, we ain't seen nothing yet, in terms of what's going to happen as an intrusion, a global intrusion into our homeland. So I think we have to be pretty strategic, and we have to be pretty clear about what we need to be saying about the world in terms of pollution and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. And I have targeted the United States, in fact, on a human rights angle, a petition because of their inaction as part of a political strategy. It's a legal assertion, very clear, very strong.

PM: Make that case for me. Make that human rights case for me.

SWC: Well, a few years back, our boards, because I was elected for 11 years, and we would say, what recourse do we have in the Arctic?, 155 thousand Inuit in the entire world that sits at the top of the world dependent upon its food source, its bounty of the land, dependent upon its environment and the wildlife. What recourse do we have when we're being polluted to the extent where our nursing mothers have to think twice about nursing their babies, a very natural thing that they would have to think twice about, because of levels so high in their breast milk? And now with climate changes, we are the most negatively, disproportionately, impacted in the world by this, as a result of our culture. What are we to do to really get the world to take notice, because our own governments are very, very slow to take action. And they have been. The United States, that is always the odd man out, at every single United Nations forum that I have ever worked at, whether it be the United Nations environment program, I'm negotiating with Stockholm, or with the United Nations framework convention on climate change, the Arctic council, it is very resistant to moving forward with other communities, or with other countries, I should say, unless it has initiated something themselves. It’s a difficult country to work with in moving ahead globally. And of course, most of these are consensus basis such as Arctic council. So when I became Chair…my intention was to put the human face on the map, the Inuit human faced the map during my term as Chair. But I felt more needed to be done. And we started to look at the angle of human rights. And there were other teams in the United States that had started to be looking at this. So as a result of, you can call it synchronicity whatever, the team started to come together. I had my first meeting in Washington DC privately, with some of these folks that were talking about that issue, their legal team looking at that. So after two years of preparation, we launched a first legal assertion, a complaint, a legal complaint to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, under the organization of American States, Canada and Alaska were able to do that. Greenland and Russia couldn't because they're not signatories to it. But Inuit of Canada and Inuit of Alaska were able to do that. Because according to the 1948 declaration of the rights and duties of man, the right to health, the right to safety, the right to property, the right to culture, all of those rights are protected for all people in those countries. We said together, because of the melting of the ice, the snow and the cold that's going to be leaving in my grandson's lifetime, all of those rights were going to be depleted, if not completely gone, because my grandson would then no longer be able to hunt and fish as he does now with his father. And we launched that petition and we targeted the United States because they are the ones that didn't sign on to Kyoto and they resisted going further in any of the negotiations. And in 2005 December in Montreal, we launched our petition. At first, we didn't ask anything more than what most governments should be asking - to protect their citizens. And that is, lower your greenhouse gas emissions.