British Columbia

Melting ice threatens safety, way of life for Indigenous people says Inuit leader

Sheila Watt-Cloutier grew up riding across ice and snow on a dogsled and learning how to live off the land. Now, she worries the land and traditions that shaped her childhood are at-risk for future generations.

'You already have homes going into the sea,' says Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her advocacy on human rights and climate change in the Arctic. (Simon Fraser University)

Sheila Watt-Cloutier grew up riding across ice and snow on a dogsled and learning how to live off the land with her family. Now, the Inuit leader worries the safety and traditions of Indigenous people in the Arctic are under threat as the land they live on and learn from literally disappears.

Watt-Cloutier, formerly the chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), is receiving an award Tuesday at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver for her work on climate change and human rights. While in town, she shared her concerns with The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

"This isn't just about ice and snow and polar bears. This is really about families and how we are trying our best to maintain a way of life with all the influx of what's happening around us," said Watt-Cloutier, who lives in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik in northern Quebec.

Watt-Cloutier said growing up on the land, knowing what it is like to be connected to nature, food sources and family, gave her a strong set of values as an adult. On the land, she said, is where Inuit children learn to be courageous and patient and the changing arctic landscape is complicating that tradition.

Sea ice breaks apart as a Finnish icebreaker traverses the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago on July 21, 2017. Since the first orbital images were taken in 1979, Arctic sea ice coverage has dropped by an average of about 88,000 square km each year — almost the surface area of Maine or the country of Serbia. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

"What we are afraid to lose is the wisdom, not just the ice but the wisdom that goes with that," said Watt-Cloutier.

She said when seasoned hunters are passing on traditional knowledge nowadays they are also teaching Indigenous youth to be more focused on the conditions around them than in years in order to keep themselves out of harms way.

"You already have homes going into the sea," said Watt-Cloutier, referring to coastal erosion and its impact on communities in Alaska. 

And as more ice melts, it could also trap and isolate people who depend on the frozen land to get around.

"The ice and snow is transportation and mobility for us. It's our highways and when that starts to go, then it becomes an issue of safety and security foremost," she said. 

Watt-Cloutier was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and as she said, has been warning people about what is happening in the Arctic "for a long, long time."

In this July 22, 2017 file photo, a polar bear climbs out of the water to walk on the ice in the Franklin Strait in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world since 1988. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

She said her work is becoming more relevant now as people around the world are experiencing climate change's impact and are connecting it to what Watt-Cloutier called "the breakdown of the air conditioner."

And as for the people who have watched the breakdown first-hand, she said Inuit people are doing their best to adapt.

"We are not going to give up hunting and fishing on the land," said Watt-Cloutier. "It's where we get solace and train our children."

Watt-Cloutier will receive the Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue at SFU's Morris J.Wosk Centre for Dialogue in a ceremony on Feb. 18.

With files from The Early Edition