Sheila Watt-Cloutier

(2015, Canada)

...for her lifelong work to protect the Inuit of the Arctic and defend their right to maintain their livelihoods and culture, which are acutely threatened by climate change.

About

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is one of the most outstanding advocates for the economic, social and cultural rights of the Inuit of the Arctic. As an elected representative of her people, administrator and advocate, Watt-Cloutier significantly contributed to an overhaul of the education system in Nunavik in Northern Quebec to make it more effective in meeting the needs of Inuit communities. She was an influential force behind the adoption of the Stockholm Convention to ban persistent organic pollutants, which accumulate strongly in Arctic food chains. Through her advocacy, she has shifted the discourse around climate change by establishing how unchecked greenhouse gas emissions violate the collective human rights of the Inuit.

Contact Details

Contact through the RLA Foundation

Biography

Early life and work on reform of the educational system in Nunavik, Canada

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was born in 1953 in Nunavik, Northern Quebec, Canada. For the first ten years of her life, Watt-Cloutier was raised traditionally, traveling on land only by dog-sled before she was sent away to a family in Nova Scotia and to a residential setting in Manitoba. As an educational administrator working for the Kativik School Board, she undertook several initiatives to improve educational standards of Inuit students, as well as addressing the problem of alcohol and drug addiction afflicting the Inuit student population. Subsequently, as one of the main contributors to the landmark 1992 Nunavik Educational Task Force Report, Watt-Cloutier and the team of Inuit leaders from Nunavik provided 101 recommendations to completely reform the system, arguing that any effective education system must consider community needs, including self-government, cultural preservation, and the development of community and regional infrastructure. Watt-Cloutier spent several years working to implement the recommendations of the report, which remains an important reference point today.

Leadership and achievements as an elected representative of the Makivik Corporation and the Inuit Circumpolar Council

From 1995 to 1998, Watt-Cloutier was elected and served as Corporate Secretary of the Makivik Corporation, the Inuit land claims organisation established under the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Watt-Cloutier used her position to address Inuit youth issues, working with them to put together the film Capturing Spirit: The Inuit Journey that visualised the various concerns that they had in coping with a changing Arctic.

In 1995, Watt-Cloutier was also elected as President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Canada, a position to which she was re-elected in 1998. ICC represents internationally the interests of Inuit in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. In this position, she served as the spokesperson for Arctic indigenous peoples in the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention banning or restricting the manufacture and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT. These substances pollute the Arctic food chain and accumulate in the bodies of Inuit, many of whom continue to subsist on local food supplies. During the negotiations, Watt-Cloutier made common cause with indigenous leaders and provided compelling evidence establishing the injurious effects of POPs on human health and nursing mothers. Through her interventions, she succinctly captured the concerns of the Inuit and projected it on the world stage, ensuring that Inuit traditional knowledge was respected and accepted as evidence. The Stockholm Convention on POPs was adopted in 2001 and entered into force on 17 May 2004. At present, 179 countries have ratified the convention.

Establishing the link between climate change and human rights violations

In 2002, Watt-Cloutier was elected International Chair of ICC, a position she held until 2006. In this position, she presented the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) before US Senator John McCain's Senate Committee on Science, Transport and Communications, stymying the attempt by the George W Bush administration to prevent Arctic states from adopting policy recommendations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Among the key findings of the ACIA was that Arctic temperature was rising at double the rate of the rest of the planet. The report also provided evidence of rising sea levels and acceleration of global temperature increases due to the loss of the reflective ice and snow in the Arctic. In December 2005, based on the ACIA findings which projected that Inuit hunting culture may not survive the loss of sea ice and other changes projected over the coming decades, Watt-Cloutier and 62 Inuit hunters and elders from communities across Canada and Alaska filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), arguing that unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases from the United States have violated Inuit cultural and human rights as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. Although the IACHR decided against hearing her petition, the Commission invited Watt-Cloutier to testify with her international legal team at their first ever hearing on climate change and human rights on March 1, 2007. The petition, which is the first international legal action on climate change, opened the door to the recognition of collective rights for indigenous peoples and firmly established the link between climate change and human rights within the mainstream global discourse.

The Right to Be Cold

Since leaving the ICC, Watt-Cloutier has continued advocating for the Inuit in an independent capacity, co-teaching a University level course on the human dimension to climate change at Bowdoin College (USA) and Mount Allison University (Canada) as well as delivering many lectures across Canada and the USA. In 2015, she published the book The Right to Be Cold about her life and the effects of climate change on Inuit communities and travelled across Canada on a book tour. While she remains an active participant in international forums, giving ten speeches at the 2009 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Watt-Cloutier is now returning to the Arctic. Her intention is to work towards developing the leadership potential of the Inuit youth, building programs that would allow them to use ancient Inuit life skills and wisdom that will be meaningful in a globalised world. She emphatically rejects a future where the Inuit exclusively work for large extractive industries, pointing out that the dispiritedness of a people cannot be relieved by a cheque from a mining company.

Honours

For her lifetime of work, Watt-Cloutier has been recognised with several honours including the 2004 United Nations Environment Programme’s Champion of the Earth Award, the Governor General’s Northern Medal in 2005 and the Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006. Two Norwegian MPs nominated her alongside former US Vice President Al Gore for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Speeches

(Please note that the full-text version of the speech may differ from the speech delivered during the Award Ceremony)

30 November 2015

I am deeply honoured and humbled to be receiving the Right Livelihood Award at a time when the world appears to be ‘breaking open’ on so many levels. Never has there been a time, at least not in my lifetime, where I have felt such concerted worry over how the world and our global society itself seems to be falling apart, crying out for strong leadership on issues which matter to us all, be that our environment, the economy or world peace. And because of this seemingly synchronistic convergence of energies, minds and hearts, it feels like we are at a cusp of great change as we move towards better understanding our troubled common atmosphere and our fragmented common humanity.

The world I was born into has changed forever. I travelled only by dog team on the ice and snow in the Arctic the first ten years of my life. In my childhood, our small family was carried safely on our sled across the frozen land and ice with my brothers leading the dog-team. The Arctic may seem cold and desolate but to us Inuit families, it brought us and still brings us the most succulent and nutritious food, not to mention the greatest lessons are offered and learned on this icy terrain, helping to develop sound judgment and wisdom for our children. Inuit of my generation have lived in both the ice age and the space age.

The modern world arrived slowly in many places in the world but in the Arctic it appeared in a single generation. Rapid change, along with historical traumas broke apart our communities, much of which I have been part of and witness to in my own lifetime. What we have held sacred and what seemed permanent, such as our hunting and training grounds, is beginning to melt away. The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain, which we as Inuit have depended on for millennia, is now diminishing before our very eyes. As the permafrost melts, roads and runways buckle. Homes and buildings along the coast sink into the ground and fall into the sea. The natural ice cellars that are used for food storage are no longer cold enough. Glaciers are melting so fast they have been known to create dangerous torrents. News species of birds, fish and insects arrive annually some of which we have no names for. The ice becomes difficult to read even for the seasoned hunter making it unsafe to travel in many parts. The land that is such an important part of our spirit, our culture, and our physical and economic well-being is becoming an often unpredictable and precarious place for us. For thousands of years the Inuit have lived sustainably in our environment and we have been stewards of our land. It is not only the melting ice, which is being threatened by the climate change, but also the wisdom of Inuit culture.

If we continue to allow the Arctic to melt, we lose more than the planet that has nurtured us for all of human history. We lose the wisdom required for us to sustain it. My life’s work has been about reminding people of their importance in the web of existence on this planet. My core message is that we are all connected. In the Arctic we may be far from the world’s corridors of power, but the Hunter who falls through the thinning sea ice in the Arctic is connected to industries of the ‘south’, the rising waters and stronger hurricanes which threaten the United States, to melting glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas, to the flooding of low-lying and small island states.

I remind people everywhere I go that we must think of foreign policy, environmental and economic policy in the same breath. On a personal level, I am often asked how I have come from such humble beginnings, to reach a point of global recognition. First the deep sense of responsibility I feel for my Inuit community, not only in my former elected official roles but, just as importantly, as a mother and grandmother drives me forward. But there is also a deeply personal component to all of this. I was once asked what leadership means to me. I responded with this: 

“Leadership means never losing sight of the fact that the issues at hand are so much bigger then oneself. Leadership is about working from a principled and ethical place within oneself. It is to model authentically for others, a sense of calm, clarity and focus. Leadership is to always check inward, to ensure you are leading from a position of strength, not fear or victimhood, so you do not project your own limitations to those you are modeling possibilities for.” 

I believe it is that ‘checking inwards’ and the grounding I received from my Inuit culture along with the life changing perspectives from many personal losses that have been instrumental to my own ability to work with the global community and model possibilities for others.

I thank the Right Livelihood Award Foundation and the jury who have given importance and belief in my life’s work so that I may continue to expand the circle. I will build upon this great honour and carry on conveying how the protection of Inuit culture is very much connected to the protection and well being of our common humanity as a whole. I am truly grateful. Nakurmiik. Thank you. 

  Pictures
 Videos

Climate Change Speaker: Sheila Watt-Cloutier

June 2011

Watt-Cloutier speaks on the effect climate change has on the human rights of the Inuit people for The Lavin Agency Speakers Bureau.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier on Climate Change and Human Rights

September 2008

Interviews

Rockburn presents – Sheila Watt-Cloutier – September  2010. Available here.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier touts Inuit 'Right to Be Cold' in new book – CBC News, March 2015. Available here.

Publications

Articles

Heroes of the Environment: Sheila Watt-Cloutier – Time Magazine, September 2008. Available here.

Fighting Climate Change Is Fighting for Human Rights – Huffington Post, Canada, Oktober 2015. Available here.

Book review by Naomi Klein – The Globe and Mail, Canada, March 2015.Available here.

Hari M. Ofosky (Assistant Professor, University of Oregon, School of Law): The Inuit Petition as a Bridge? Beyond Dialectics of Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. In: American Indian Law Review, Vol 31, No.2 (2010).

Books

S. Watt-Cloutier. The right to be cold, One woman’s story of protecting her culture, the arctic and the whole planet. Canada, The Penguin Group, 2015.

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

E-mail: