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.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier is one of the most outstanding advocates for the 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.
In 2015, she published the book The Right to Be Cold about her life and the effects of climate change on Inuit communities. Watt-Cloutier convincingly argues that climate change is a human rights issue to which everyone on the planet is inevitably linked. By pointing out how unchecked greenhouse gas emissions violate the collective human rights of the Inuit, her work has helped shift the discourse around climate change.
While she remains an active participant in international forums, Watt-Cloutier has returned to the Arctic. She works 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 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.
Credit: Stephen Lowe
Credit: The Silent Photographer
Early life and reforming the educational system in Nunavik
For the first ten years of her life, Sheila Watt-Cloutier was raised traditionally, travelling on land only by dog-sledge 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.
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 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.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier has been co-teaching university-level courses on the human dimension to climate change at Bowdoin College (USA) and Mount Allison University (Canada). She has also delivered a large number of lectures across Canada and the USA.
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.