Women of Influence recently honoured Sheila Watt-Cloutier with the 2022 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award. It is in recognition of her prolific career as an environmental, cultural, and human rights advocate.
In 2007, Sheila was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work showing the impact of global climate change on human rights — especially in the Arctic and for Indigenous communities. Throughout her career, she has worked with global leaders and high-profile decision-makers to evaluate how their policies and actions are impacting their citizens.
In a profile with Women of Influence, Sheila shared her journey to becoming a well-known advocate and leader on the global stage, and her vision for the way forward for all of humanity.
Becoming a Leader
Sheila, or Siila in Inuktitut, was born in Kuujjuaq in Northern Quebec. Sheila lived a traditional Inuit way of life until she was 10 years old and sent away from her community by the Canadian government. She first went to Nova Scotia and then to a residential school in Manitoba when she was 12. It was here where Sheila found her calling to help others.
“The government-run residential school system was hard and we were 200 Inuit kids together,” she told Women of Influence. “I had to become a model of survival, so I drew my strength from what I learned from my grandmother and mother. I wanted to help others and be of service to my community.”
When she was 18, Sheila moved back to her hometown and began a career in education. She witnessed the dramatic changes that were happening in her community — addictions and the breakdown of traditions — that were particularly impacting the youth. She wanted to take on a leadership role to help her community more.
Advocating for Change on the Global Stage
After serving as the Inuk advisor to the Nunavik Education Task Force, Sheila was elected to lead the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an organization that represented about 165,000 Inuit in the Arctic primarily living in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia. After 7 years, Sheila was elected chair of the ICC.
“It was almost overnight that I became the spokesperson for the Inuit around the world,” Sheila said. “I entered the organizations at a time when much work and research was being done about the health impact of pollutants and toxins on the communities. These pollutants, carried though weather patterns from afar, were contaminating the Arctic food chain and accumulating in the bodies and nursing milk of our Inuit mothers. Climate change was also impacting an individual’s ability to safely hunt.”
Sheila brought this issue to the international stage, playing a critical role in the United Nations negotiations that banned the use of Persistent Organic Pollutants. She also launched the first legal action linking climate change to human rights, particularly when it comes to Inuit communities. Sheila wrote about this in her memoir, The Right to Be Cold.
In recognition of her work, Sheila has received the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, the Norwegian Sophie Prize, the Jack P. Blaney award for Dialogue, and the Right Livelihood Award, which is widely considered the “Nobel Alternative.” She is also an Officer of the Order of Canada.
The Way Forward
Sheila told Women of Influence that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a reality check for all of us, showing that the way we do things — in business and culturally — needs to change.
“The pandemic is opening hearts and souls to find solutions to address climate change; it has exposed the unresolved issues of racism in the Indigenous and Black communities,” Sheila said. “We’re in a space where we need to address these issues as we’re all connected. Change is coming, and there is hope in that.”
Sheila’s focus now is to continue humanizing climate change, sharing her message through articles, webinars, TED Talks, and, of course, keynotes. She is also working with leaders, educating them on how to show up more authentically for their teams. She draws on the Indigenous wisdom that she grew up with to show leaders how to be intentional when envisioning a new way forward.
Even though times are challenging right now, Sheila believes that there has never been a better time to build a better and brighter future.
“It’s a time of great pause and a change of great perspectives,” she said. “A new way of doing things is coming.”
At a time when people are seeking solutions, direction, and a sense of hope, Sheila Watt-Cloutier provides a big picture of where we are and where we’re headed. Having worked with global decision-makers for more than a decade, Sheila offers a new model for 21st century leadership.
Interested in learning more about Sheila and what she can bring to your next event as a keynote speaker? Email us at [email protected].