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.

Acceptance speech – Sheila Watt-Cloutier

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 ïsouthÍ, 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 lifeÍs 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.

Contact through the RLA Foundation