Canada Reads·Magic 8 Q&A

Sheila Watt-Cloutier on the lifelong fight to maintain her Indigenous voice

The Canada Reads finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier is the author of The Right to Be Cold. (CBC)

The Right to Be Cold is an eye-opening chronicle of Canada's north, detailing the devastating impact of climate change on Inuit communities. In it, award-winning activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes her lifelong struggle to preserve Arctic regions. Chantal Kreviazuk defended The Right to Be Cold on Canada Reads 2017.

Below, Sheila Watt-Cloutier answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Shani Mootoo asks, "What was the best surprise you had in the process of writing your latest published book?"

Clarity in understanding the connections as one writes — in other words, realizing that there is truly a cosmic order to life. The more I wrote about my life, there was clarity as to the flow in my life. All the struggles I had faced had a meaning and purpose, and everything was connected. Not that it was so surprising, as I have lived this spiritual life for some time and recognize those connections. However, when you write in detail about your own life, it becomes a lot clearer that one's professional work is not separated from one's own spiritual journey.

2. Riel Nason asks, "Where in Canada haven't you been yet that you really want to visit?"

I would love to visit Haida Gwaii, which I hear is a magical place and I have never been.

3. William Deverell asks, "Ever wanted to throttle an interviewer? Tell me about it."

I don't think I have ever wanted to throttle an interviewer per se, but I certainly have been disappointed in some who take up your time for major pieces and never print them. A journalist once had me up early for a breakfast interview about my book so he could do a profile on my life's work in a major Canadian paper and never printed it. Disappointing and frustrating!

4. Gregory Scofield asks, "If you could change one thing about anything you've written, what would it be? And why?"

I may wish to visit the areas in The Right to Be Cold that some publishers/editors are having trouble with — which are the factual details of the regional, national and global work itself. Some are saying the book gets bogged down and loses the interest of the reader with these details. I did not want to silo my life and life's work, as they are one of the same. Nor did I want to exclude the important connections between what we as Inuit are challenged with at the social, health and cultural levels and the political rights-based issues. I also wanted the younger generation to understand those details to better see how these political processes work in the real world. I had hoped the book would be used in high schools and universities, therefore it was important for me to include the details of the political work I was involved in. How would I change or edit those parts without eliminating them? I don't know.

5. Tracey Lindberg asks, "What book is on your nightstand right now? How long has it been there?"

The book I'm currently reading is The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White. It goes into my computer bag each time I travel and I have yet to finish it, although I have had it now for about four or five months. It was recommended to me by an editor and I am eager to finish it. I love the statement at the back of the book: "The end of protest is the beginning of the spiritual revolution within ourselves, the political revolution of our communities, the social revolution on Earth... " Just those words alone resonate and feed me deeply.

6. Dianne Warren asks, "Do you like doing public readings? Why or why not?"

Although I don't mind doing public readings, I do prefer speaking directly from the heart. I find it connects better with audiences when I speak directly rather then read.

7. Beth Powning asks, "What part of the editing process do you find most difficult? Is there any part of it that you enjoy?"

This being my first experience writing a book, I became very overwhelmed with the editing process at times. It was necessary for me to maintain my Indigenous voice throughout my book and there were times I felt I was not well understood for that. The "word" or "writing" became an issue with the publisher/agent, where for me it was about the voice and the authenticity of my story. I felt some of the editing process became an extension of my own life to maintain my voice, and that part of the work was very taxing on me. Later in the process, I truly enjoyed it when the editing became a way in which the messages I was trying to express and convey without the feeling of loss of voice were starting to emerge, and fulfill both my intentions and those of the publishers. Those who know me and have read my book say they can hear my voice on every page, so it was worth the struggles to push back and keep all facets of my life and life's work in the book.

8. Eden Robinson asks, "What is your first childhood memory?"

My earliest memories are with my small family in what was then called Fort Chimo, where I was born. I recall being carried in what was likely the first "snuggly": a tartan shawl where Inuit mothers carried their younger babies in front. I must have been less than two to have been carried in this manner, but I remember that clearly. I have many memories of being on top of the qamutik (dogsled) inside a wooden box, again snuggled in furs and blankets as we travelled on icy and snowy highways. Looking up at the blue sky and feeling the crunch of the ice and snow below with the dogs panting as they followed the directions from my brothers, then eating nutritious and delicious "country food" at the end of the day — these memories have led me to do what I do: protect a way of life that was there for me from the beginning.


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