Author to speak about her northern upbringing

Internationally-recognized human rights advocate Sheila Watt-Cloutier is coming to Centretown United Church on March 31 to talk about her new memoir, The Right to be Cold.

The event will take place at 7 p.m, hosted by Ottawa Writers Festival.

The Right to be Cold tells Watt-Cloutier’s story of growing up in the Arctic community of Kuujjuaq, Que., and the challenges of being sent away for school when she was 10 years old. It also details her years of experience in politics, fighting to protect the rights of Inuit in the Arctic in the face of of climate change and other environmental challenges.

The book’s introduction asks: “If we cannot save the frozen arctic, how can we save the rest of the world?” 

“Most books about climate change are written about the ice, or written about polar bears, or written about the actual science of it all,” says Watt-Cloutier. “I wanted to write this in a way so that fellow Canadians and beyond would resonate with it from the human perspective.”

“Sheila is quite a visionary, and she brings to the festival an entirely new way of seeing the North – and not just the North and the Arctic, but the whole world,” says Neil Wilson, the development director of Ottawa Writers Festival.

Much of Watt-Cloutier’s advocacy work has focused on the effects of global climate change in the Arctic. As the International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, she started the world’s first international legal action on climate change in 2005, arguing that greenhouse gas emissions from the United States were causing violations to Inuit cultural and environmental human rights. In 2007, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“It was really, in my opinion, a no-brainer, in terms of it being a human rights issue that the world was not addressing as urgently as they needed to,” says Watt-Cloutier.

“When the ice and the snow and the cold start to go, it affects everything in the ecosystem and the hunting lifestyle of our people. Everything from our right to culture, our right to food, our right to educate, our right to safety and security – all of those rights are impacted.” 

Watt-Cloutier says she does not consider herself an environmentalist.

 “I work very hard on protecting the environment of the Arctic as it pertains to the planet, but I think I’m coming from a different vantage point, where it’s not a project or it’s not just about saving the trees . . . It’s about trying to create and maintain sustainability in the Arctic for its people and culture, as it relates to the rest of the planet,” says Watt-Cloutier.

“We now have a government that’s very supportive of resource extraction industries, which can be extremely, highly intrusive,” says Watt-Cloutier.

“Climate change and oil drilling are the two biggest threats (to the Arctic), and they’re very much related,” says Alex Speers-Roesch, from Greenpeace Canada’s Arctic campaign. “The oil drilling is proceeding forward because the ice is receding, and the resources are easier to access…but obviously the oil contributes to climate change.

In the Arctic, the effects of global climate change have already reached the Inuit.

“For the longest time, the Inuit have been the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it came to global effects on the Arctic,” says Terry Audla, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national advocacy organization which represents the voices of Inuit across Canada.

“The first example would have been the thinning of the ozone layer, and then there were persistent organic pollutants . . . being deposited onto our land and into our water and entering our food chain.

“There’s what I call the global guilty conscience. They say they want to save the Arctic, but they’re saying there shouldn’t be any development in the Arctic, (we should be) banning the seal trade, banning the polar bear trade, banning basically anything of importance when it comes to our livelihoods. We have to survive. In order to be sustainable, we can’t have these bans.”

Wilson says he hopes that giving Watt-Cloutier a platform at the writers’ festival will help raise awareness about these issues.

“I think the book should be standard reading,” says Wilson. “I think it should be taught in schools, the earlier the better.”