Cold North, Warm Heart: Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s Activism for Culture and Climate Justice Above the Tree-Line
“The work that I do is really to humanize the issue of climate change…. connecting climate change to human rights,” explains Sheila Watt-Cloutier is an Inuk woman who lived in Nunavut for 18 years before moving back to Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, where she was born. She was busier than ever with public events when the pandemic slowed things down and moved her outreach activities virtual. She had to move to Montreal where internet service was better, which was an adjustment, but it’s where her two kids and grandchildren live.
While she doesn’t have a university degree, she holds honorary doctorates for her life’s work. She wrote The Right To Be Cold, her memoir which chronicles her journey, so youth could understand the historical context of their communities’ struggles and understand how that impacts their ability to cope and de-personalize some of what they are going through.
“It's all part of that evolution of life that we've got to think about. It's all meant to be there to make you and not break you.”
Reflecting on her political career, she says, “I never wanted to enter politics at all; I just didn't feel that it was the place for me. But I ended up, in my own region, speaking up for social and education changes, health changes in my younger days and my whole life's work and that led me to feeling like, perhaps at some point in my life, I really wanted to give myself some kind of a base, a power base, not from an ego place, but a place that really wanted to make a difference in our communities.”
She started working as a student counsellor and interpreter in clinics after returning home at 18 from being sent away for school for eight years, attending residential school, living with a family, and going to school in Ottawa. She also worked as a student counsellor in Montreal, and once aspired to be a doctor, but found she didn’t enjoy the sciences. In healthcare, she realized the depth of the problems her community faces due to historical traumas and rapid change.
“Modeling myself after my mother, who was an interpreter for many years and of great service to our community, I had this sense of calling to do something more.”
She worked in education for a decade before deciding to run for office. Working with the Inuit Circumpolar Council, first with the Canadian branch, and then as the International Chair, she spent 11 years defending the rights and interests of Inuit internationally. She’s expanded her reach through speaking, with her words reaching crowds in the thousands.
Her advice for students who might be thinking about leaving their community to learn, work or travel is encouraging. “You really broaden your own horizons... You don't lose yourself, you're really grounded in your culture and your language and your way of life. If you have that compelling need to explore further I think it only enhances and strengthens who you are,” she relays.
Watt-Cloutier likes to rest, reflect, and spend time with her grandchildren to maintain her mental health. When she’s at home in the north she enjoys ice fishing, fishing in the summer, boating and spending time on the land gathering berries and enjoying the beautiful vistas.
“My connection to my culture, and to my community is very strong in me and that inspires me to keep going.”
She’s inspired by her humble beginnings, growing up in a tiny community with strong social connections, raised by her mother and grandmother, single mothers who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and by the inspiring words of poet Lousie Bogan and Marianne Williamson. She’s starting to write a second book on heart centered leadership and her perspective on leading change which is grounded in relationships. “An outrage can really mobilize you to do things, but in that more reflective way of bringing people together, a better understanding, these things take time. I also say very often that they will happen at the speed of empathy…and they will happen at the speed of trust,” she shares.
Looking back, she wishes she could tell her younger self, “I know things have been unsafe in the past, but you're in a safe place now….You've worked hard with determination and commitment… Thank you for trusting in this process, for trusting that you were going to be okay.” She also wishes she could tell herself, “Don't lose hope. When you break down, there's often a very big breakthrough coming about in the corner. Don't shortcut that by contemplating taking your life or self destructing with drugs or alcohol, because what you're going through is a normal process called the evolution of spirit…there is a reason for those kinds of challenges and so it's important not to give up….Even if it's dark right now, it won't be forever.”
To build that resilience in Northern youth facing what were the highest suicide rates in North America, she sees resources for hope in culture. “Traditional skills are character building skills, when you're out on the land, hunting and fishing and being with tradition, those are powerful moments that teaches you about who you are, then they're transferable to the modern world. What you're being taught on the ice or on the land…of being bold under pressure, how to withstand stressful situations, how to not be impulsive, all of those things… lead you to sound judgment and to wisdom,” she relays. That’s why she advocates for land-based learning and healing programs that teach not just conservation and hunting skills, but also personal development.
Her work is to humanize the issue of climate change, connecting climate change to human rights, and with her human approach to connection and community, Sheila Watt-Cloutier is sharing warmth while protecting the cold climate of the North. Inspired by her humble beginnings, she’s trying to create a brighter future for youth, to help them find reasons to hope for tomorrow, grounded in the truth, wisdom and traditions of the past.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.