'Everything is connected': Sheila Watt-Cloutier talks climate change

Sheila Watt-Cloutier sat down with CBC’s Lawrence Nayally to explore the theme of a keynote speech she gave while she was in Yellowknife last week, that everything is connected.

Renowned environmentalist and author was in Yellowknife last week to deliver keynote speech

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was in Yellowknife this past week to speak about why climate change affects everything, from sea levels to social issues. (Stephen Lowe/Right Livelihood)

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is on a mission.

The environmental activist is a household name across Canada for her years of environmental activism. She's written a memoir, The Right to be Cold, and her tireless efforts have led to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

On Monday, Watt-Cloutier sat down with CBC's Lawrence Nayally to explore the theme of a keynote speech she gave while she was in Yellowknife last week — that everything is connected.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: The theme of your discussion is everything is connected. What do you mean by that?

The melt of the Arctic's ice is the start of changes we are witnessing around the world. The ice that's melting is not only creating [rising sea levels] but is creating changes to our weather patterns and climate with more intense hurricanes, the salification of oceans, the ocean currents changing, more wildfires, droughts, you name it. It's to make those connections.

Also, the cultural and human rights aspect of climate change is one that should connect us all, because it's the collective human rights that can really bring the human face, the human dimension to an issue that most people just understand as political, or scientific, or economic only.

Q: You've said people of your generation feel as though they've lived three lifetimes. What do you mean by that?

Most societies, it's taken maybe 350 years for people to adjust and adapt to this modern world of ours. I grew up the first 10 years of my life only travelling by dogteam.

I didn't know any English until I was six, I was raised by a mother and a grandmother. We lived very traditionally and boom, we are living in this modern world. We went from dogteam to miniskirts and rock and roll, like overnight, right? So here I was on a dogteam and the next thing I know I'm at residential school in Churchill wearing go-go boots, dancing to the Beatles.

A polar bear walks over sea ice floating in the Victoria Strait in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in this file photo. The Arctic is seeing the greatest changes to due climate change. (David Goldman/AP/Canadian Press)

Q: You've faced some pushback from your work. What kinds of things are you hearing out there, in terms of climate change deniers?

I don't focus on that. There are certain struggles or battles that you can fight, and get through, and make a mark, and make a difference. And there are others you can't. So I don't focus on the ones that you can't because I would deplete my energy for the wrong reasons.

Q: A huge part of your work is to create hope. How do you do that while still acknowledging the global crisis and how it affects us all?

I think without hope we don't move forward.

Whether it's as parents, as leaders, we have to check in with ourselves first. If we're in that kind of leadership role [it's] always about checking in and making sure we're not functioning from victimhood or fear and we are functioning from a place of clarity and focus, so we don't project our own limitations to those that we are modelling possibilities for.

Q: The best leaders I've run into in my life weren't within the N.W.T. government or band offices or sitting at mayor positions — they were out on the land.

Absolutely. I mean, a hunter is a leader. It's the principles and the values of the hunter's spirit that we should be trying to foster and build. There's a disconnect that happens, you now? The same great hunter who is out on the ice may not be the great board member. It's these types of things that we have to keep questioning.

It's not to say that we can't do university, it's not to say we can't do leadership in institutions, but we have to learn from what's happening every day.

Q: What would be your words for people who might be looking at climate change as something that isn't important to them?

My message is, we have to look at long-term and we have to see climate change as a very big part of what we're going through.

Climate change is not just environment. Climate change is about housing, it is about food security, it is about education.

People are so overwhelmed by the immediacy of some of the crises that we're dealing with in our community that climate change kind of takes the back burner, but for me it's always been that all of it connects.

- With files from Lawrence Nayally