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revealing the human face of climate change in the Arctic Sheila Watt-Cloutier

by Frances Rooney | February 12, 2007

On February 1, 2007, Canadian Sheila Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by two Norwegian legislators. They chose Sheila because of her environmental activism – notably on issues concerning persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and climate change.

This is one more surprise in a life that has been anything but predictable.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was born onto the land and into an Inuit society that had changed little for centuries. Her father was not part of the family. Her mother supported herself, her own mother, and her children.

Because their mother had to travel in her work, Sheila and her siblings grew up with their grandmother. That way, Sheila had the benefit of learning from the two strong women she lived with.

I am part of a generation that has experienced tumultuous change in a short period of time, coming from a very traditional way of life to a modern, high-tech world ... I have come from travelling only by dog team and canoe to flying in jumbo jets all over the world.

— Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Largely because of these changes, the Inuit of Canada now have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and alcoholism and drug use are rampant. The Inuit people were dragged from a social system that worked for them into a foreign and unwanted way of living that poisons their minds, souls, and spirits.

In the mid-1980s, more than 200 toxic chemicals – some of them the highest levels in the world – were discovered in mothers’ breast milk and in the umbilical cords of newborn babies.

We were being poisoned – not of our doing but from afar.

— Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Since that time, Sheila has been a leader in the fight for environmental health in the north and around the world.

Now, global warming – also caused by far-away societies – is devastating the north.

  • Arctic ice is turning to water or a water-and-ice soup. Insects that had always been controlled by the cold and ice are creating havoc.
  • Animals and birds from the south are going into the far north: in 2005, for the first time, robins were seen in Inuvik.
  • Polar bears are starving, and in some places they are drowning because they cannot swim the distances between solid places to go onto land.
  • Airfields and houses are coming apart as the very land that is the base of Inuit life shifts and crumbles.

Faced with this stark reality, I brought a sense of responsibility and commitment, urgency and passion to my work.

— Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Sheila’s work needed everything she could bring to it. In 1995, she was elected president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) of Canada. The ICC represents rights and interests of the 155,000 Inuit of Canada, Greenland, the United States, and Russia. In 1998, she was re-elected, and in 2002 began a four-year term as international chair of the ICC.

As Canadian and then international chair, Sheila's main activities centred around first convincing nations of the need for an agreement to eliminate persistent organic pollutants (POPs), then participating in the meetings that led to the Stockholm Convention.

As spokesperson for the world’s Inuit, she worked with representatives of many countries to draft this legally binding agreement, which outlaws the nine worst persistent organic pollutants. The 151 signing countries also agree to examine new pollutants as they appear, and to ban those that do significant damage and take excessive periods of time to disappear from the world's water and food supplies.

The long and difficult negotiations for the agreement finally completed, the Stockholm Convention went into effect in May 2004.

Sheila now focuses on global warming and its effect on the north and the Inuit. As she points out, even while some people were still questioning whether global warming was real, the Inuit were living with its effects.

She emphasizes that the people of the north are like the canary in a cage for the planet. Coal miners used to take a caged canary underground with them; if the bird became distressed – often dying – it was a sign of both methane and carbon monoxide gas traces. This poisoned air was deadly, and could also lead to an explosion in the shaft. Because of the canary, miners knew to get out right away.

We’re meant to be the beacon, so that the rest of the world can understand what it’s doing to itself.

— Sheila Watt-Cloutier

In December of 2005, Sheila and 62 Inuit elders and hunters from communities across Canada and Alaska filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). It states that the huge amounts of greenhouse gases the United States puts into the atmosphere have violated the human and environmental rights of the Inuit of this continent as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man [Humanity].

One year later, Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s term as international chair of the ICC ended. Just before her term was up, Sheila received a letter saying that the IACHR had rejected the petition. However, on March 1, 2007, the commission will hold a hearing in Washington to discuss global warming and human rights. It will be open to the public.

Now, with this nomination, Sheila's name is in global news as never before. Already, Mariane Pearl is writing an upcoming profile of her for Glamour magazine. And Sheila plans to write a book. The title? “The Right to be Cold.”

side note

Along with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore also received a Nobel nomination. This pairing of a politician and a grassroots activist is even more exciting than it would otherwise be because the two members of the Norwegian Parliament who named them represent the political extremes of the government: the Conservative and the Socialist Left parties.

The Nobel Committee has occasionally granted the prize jointly to unconnected recipients. How amazing it would be if they did so this time, underlining the point that the environment is crucial enough to cross party lines and bring together people who approach this immense problem from very different and equally essential places. We'll learn who wins in December.

other awards

Sheila Watt-Cloutier has received many awards, both personally and on behalf of the ICC, for her work on POPs, education, traditional ecological knowledge, and the impact of climate change.

These include:

  • Global Environment Award from the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations in Washington, DC
  • Sophie Prize, awarded in Oslo, Norway
  • Champion of the Earth Award, from the United Nations, which she received in Nairobi
  • Citation for Lifetime Achievement at the Canadian Environment Awards in Vancouver
  • International Environment Award, presented at Earth Day in Toronto
  • Honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Winnipeg
  • Order of Canada
  • Order of Greenland, presented as she was leaving the office of ICC international chair
resources for this story
  • Courageous Women Environmentalists, by FRANCES ROONEY, Second Story Press, Toronto | fall 2007
  • “The Inuit Journey towards a POPs-Free World”, by SHEILA WATT-CLOUTIER, in the book Northern Lights Against POPs, David Downie and Terry Fenge, ed., pgs. 256-67, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal | 2003
  • Don't Abandon Arctic to Climate Change, The Globe and Mail, p. A19 | May 24, 2006

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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