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Sheila Watt-Cloutier Made Climate Change a Human Rights Issue

Sheila Watt-Cloutier Made Climate Change a Human Rights Issue

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Inuit activist, was selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians in 2010.

In the landmark 2005 legal petition she served against the United States, Sheila Watt-Cloutier linked the devastating effects of climate change on the Arctic to the human rights of her fellow Inuit. At the time, such a view wasn’t exactly accepted wisdom. In fact, it sounded downright odd.

“Today, it’s mainstream language – everybody talks about [climate change]as a human-rights issue,” says Ms. Watt-Cloutier from Maine, where she is spending a year as a teaching scholar at Bowdoin College’s Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center. “I think we’ve been successful in changing the discourse on this issue to making that connection.”

For the past 15 years, Ms. Watt-Cloutier has also striven to connect the health of the Arctic with global well-being. Her petition to the Inter-American Council on Human Rights – which led to a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nomination alongside Al Gore – is one of several bold stands she has taken in defence of her ancestral home. But she doesn’t believe in confrontation.

“I have always engaged in the politics of influence rather than the politics of protest,” says Ms. Watt-Cloutier, who holds a clutch of honorary degrees and received the Order of Canada in 2006. “The style of leadership that I have is one of bringing people together and understanding that we’re all one here. The planet and its people are one.”

She notes that attention is now shifting to the Arctic – largely because of the oil and mineral wealth that lies beneath its fast-melting ice. To Ms. Watt-Cloutier’s dismay, the world knows the North’s resources better than its original inhabitants, whose traditional way of life is at stake.

“That’s the sadness, even though a lot of people may disagree with me – perhaps even in our own regions – and say, ‘Development is the way to go,’ ” says the 56-year-old grandmother, stressing that she is not anti-business. “For me, it’s always about balance. At what cost is it that we’re going to go in that direction?”

Ms. Watt-Cloutier, who lives in Iqaluit, was born into a hunting and fishing family in Kuujjuaq, a coastal Inuit community in Northern Quebec’s Nunavik region. For the first 10 years of her life, she travelled only by dogsled and she spoke no English until she started school. “It shaped me completely – that’s the foundation upon which I do my global work,” she says of her early childhood.

After several years as an Inuktitut interpreter at the Kuujjuaq hospital, Ms. Watt-Cloutier shifted to educational and community advocacy. Her somewhat unlikely metamorphosis into a political leader began in 1995, when she was elected corporate secretary of Makivik Corp., which oversees Inuit land claims including the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Over the next decade, Ms. Watt-Cloutier found herself thrust into a larger public role as head of the Canadian and then the international branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

At the ICC, she led Northern indigenous people from four countries in a campaign against persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which have long poisoned the Arctic food chain. Aided by NGOs and other supporters, she was instrumental in negotiating a global treaty that seeks to ban these toxins.

As part of what she calls her mission to transform public opinion into public policy, Ms. Watt-Cloutier is writing a book called The Right to Be Cold. Because the Arctic is the early-warning system for climate change, she argues, its fate is everyone’s.

“That’s always been my message, to signal that everything is connected,” Ms. Watt-Cloutier says. “And it’s interesting that it is our shared troubled atmosphere that is connecting us as a shared humanity.”

From The Globe and Mail.