The Next Chapter

Sheila Watt-Cloutier on raising awareness about climate change in the Arctic

Shelagh Rogers talks with the Canada Reads author about her memoir The Right to Be Cold, which puts a human face on the climate change issue.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier's memoir The Right to Be Cold is a finalist for Canada Reads 2017.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was born in the small Arctic community of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik in northern Quebec. She and her siblings were raised by her single mother and single grandmother, and until she was 10, transportation was by dogsled and food was seal, whale and caribou. Then Sheila went to school in southern Canada, and she lost touch with this traditional way of life. She has since become an Inuit leader, an internationally renowned activist and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. 

Watt-Cloutier tells the story of her life in her memoir The Right to Be Cold. The title is a reference to her most famous campaign, where she argued that protection from climate change is a fundamental human right. The Right to Be Cold was a finalist for Canada Reads 2017, where it was defended by Chantal Kreviazuk. Shelagh Rogers spoke with Sheila Watt-Cloutier when The Right to Be Cold was first released.

Why she is hopeful about protecting the planet

I think more and more, the world is starting to understand the issue of climate change. When you talk about these issues from a political or economic or academic perspective, people have a hard time getting that. But I think when you put the human face to these issues and we bring everything down to our common humanity, it becomes easier to understand these challenges that we face, not just in the Arctic but how those challenges in the Arctic reflect back to how everything is interconnected. We, as that common humanity, are all connected to what is happening to our environment. There is a momentum that is building where people are starting to understand better that protecting the Arctic is saving the planet.

The moment climate change hit home for her

It was really when I got elected [president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Canada, in 1998]. The global negotiations were starting to happen on persistent organic pollutants, which are the pollutants that ended up finding their way into the food chain of our people, and into our marine mammals in particular. It really touched me to the core as a mother and as a grandmother — there was really something seriously wrong about the planet that we were creating if Inuit women of the Arctic were having to think twice about nursing their babies as a result of these toxins. And the rest is history — I hit the ground running and ran with that campaign. And it was almost overnight that I was out there in the world, doing this work.

On leadership and finding your passion

You don't set out to be a leader. I certainly didn't — in fact, I never liked politics. Most people don't know that I'm actually an introvert doing extrovert work. And so, it was not in my plans to become a politician. But when you find something that you're very passionate about, and that you feel is really important for you to get involved with, you step up to that plate. You put aside the uncomfortableness of being out there in public. And that's the way it has been for me. It was really important to me to continue to campaign on these issues and really make it my life's mission and passion. Climate change of course became the next battle for me, and that's the very thing about our right to be cold — the world has to really understand that it's an issue of human rights, because that brings everything to that human level.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier's comments have been edited and condensed.