The Inuit of northern Canada experience the effects of global warming on a daily basis. Environmental activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee along with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, warns climate change poses a threat to the cultural survival of her people. “We are the early warning for the rest of the world.”

By Frank Kuin in Iqaluit

Sheila Watt-Cloutier has a first-class view of climate change. From her home in Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s semi-autonomous Nunavut Territory, the prominent environmental activist’s house overlooks Frobisher Bay, a large inlet that the Inuit use most of the year as an icy route to their traditional hunting grounds. The bay and the surrounding tundra look chilly in their lonely expanse, bathing in the sun.

As a result of global warming, which is felt more strongly in the Arctic than in other parts of the world, these days the bay freezes over several weeks later than it used to, Watt-Cloutier says. The ice also breaks up a lot earlier in spring. Polar bears, seals and caribou often stay further away, while new species have appeared, including wasps and even robins. The Inuit don’t have names for some of the species in their own language, Inuktitut. “The changes have been very dramatic over the last 5 to 10 years,” she says.

View of Iqaluit and Frobisher Bay in Nunavut.

View of Iqaluit and Frobisher Bay in Nunavut.

Watt-Cloutier (53), a former Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an organization of Inuit in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, has experienced the physical changes in the inhospitable area first-hand. As a little girl, she travelled with her family by dogsled in the region of her birthplace, Kuujjuaq in Nunavik, northern Quebec. Most Inuit still lived in igloos, and it was always cold. “We didn’t even dare put our feet in the river, because the water was so cold,” she says. “But now, the weather gets so warm in the summer that everybody is down at the river, swimming.”

Nowadays, Watt-Cloutier travels by jumbo jet, trotting the globe to warn people of the dramatic effects of climate change on the Arctic. She tells her story at conferences and international summit meetings, where the Inuit are often unrepresented because they have no state. The effects of global warming are profound, she explains. Climate change poses a threat to the cultural survival of the Inuit – and violates what she calls their fundamental ‘right to be cold’. Her work has earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Because of their position on the front lines of climate change and as ‘net recipients’ of warming – greenhouse gas emissions in the Arctic are negligible, but increases in temperatures are the strongest – the Inuit have a role to provide “an early warning to the rest of the world,” says Watt-Cloutier. “We may be 155,000 Inuit in the world, but we will be counted,” she argues. “We will signal to the world that countries like the United States and others will not diminish us as a people without us saying something very strong about it.”

Watt-Cloutier doesn’t mince words in the message she spreads around the globe: climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized nations violates the human rights of the Inuit. Pollution in distant lands affects the environment in the Arctic – not just for animals, but also for people. “The world has come to know the Arctic wildlife, like polar bears and seals, better than its people,” Watt-Cloutier observes. “Climate change is about more than ice, it’s about more than species of animals. It is about a people who are really trying to make it in this new world order of globalization, so that we can maintain our way of life. And so this is a human rights issue.”

“Our lives are based on the cold, the ice and the snow”

Watt-Cloutier is the driving force behind a petition by the Inuit to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body within the Organization of American States (OAS), to have climate change recognized as a violation of human rights. In the petition, the United States in particular are held responsible for violating the rights of the Inuit, not just because America is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, but also because the Bush administration has refused to join international efforts to combat global warming, such as the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This spring, the Commission invited Watt-Cloutier to explain the connection between climate change and human rights. She gave a presentation in Washington, where she had earlier testified about climate change to the U.S. Congress. The Commission has not yet taken a position. If it supports the petition, it will only be of symbolic importance, as the Commission cannot force member states of the OAS into action.

Meanwhile, Sheila Watt-Cloutier is working on a book about the Inuit perspective on climate change, titled ‘The Right to be Cold’.

Why do the Inuit have a right to be cold?

“Because our lives are based on the cold, the ice and the snow. More than anywhere else in the world, our lives revolve around the ice and snow, as a culture, a tradition. Our hunting culture is extremely dependent on the ice, snow and the cold being what it is meant to be. The environment is our supermarket, it connects us to our food source. And also, nowhere else in the world but in the Arctic does snow and ice represent transportation and mobility, so if the ice is unpredictable in certain areas it also becomes an issue of safety and security. In short, for us climate change is not just an environmental issue, but a matter of our survival.

“Climate change affects our hunting tradition. It is our right to culture, our right to health, our right to subsistence, our right to property. All of those rights that exist in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man of 1948 are exactly what is being challenged here. We used a mechanism that already exists to protect its people with those rights. We will not sit back and have this happen to us while the world community continues as if nothing is going on and our rights are affected by climate change.”

Why is it so important to preserve the hunting culture? Other people have left the hunt behind them.

“Our hunting culture is a source of strength and self-esteem in our adaptation to a new world order. The Inuit have gone through very tumultuous changes, which has taken other societies hundreds of years. In my lifetime, we have gone from a nomadic hunter existence to a life in the modern world. The speed at which this has happened has really contributed to the breakdown of our society. Our society is now showing a “dispiritedness” in terms of addictions and violence and suicide. Our boys from the age of 16 to 24 have the highest rate of suicide in North America. Suicides are contagious, and it’s very real.

“So as we’re coming out the other side of this modernization and recognizing what has happened to our world, we realize the very thing that we know is going to offer strength and solutions and answers is now melting. It is our hunting culture, which is about the wisdom of the land that teaches our young people patience, courage, how not to be impulsive, how to have sound judgment.

“We needed to have those skills to survive the land, but you know, those character skills are very much a requirement in the modern world, so that our young people can learn how not to be self-destructive. All the survival-based skills that are taught on the land are actually really needed in this transitioning culture that we’re in. And so we’re realizing much more emphasis and focus has to be on maintaining our hunting culture, that is so powerful, so holistic in its way of rearing children and teaching children.”

Watt-Cloutier shows a photo of her grandson, who is almost 10 years old. He is pictured smiling with a bearded seal, the first seal he has killed. “I do this for my grandson and his future. I want him to remain hunting, because I know it will teach him the strength, the focus, the judgment, the patience and the courage to survive in a transitioning culture.”

Your petition is aimed specifically at the United States. Why?

“The United States are saying: we are not going to do anything about this because first, we don’t believe it’s happening, second we don’t think it’s human-induced and third, we don’t want one American to lose a job by changing our economic policies. Whether or not this instrument has teeth to be able to force the U.S. to do anything is beside the point. It is the fact that people have taken notice, and said: ‘human righs? What?’ It’s not personal against America or against the Bush administration.”

Your work is being compared to that of former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, who has drawn attention to climate change with his movie An Inconvenient Truth. You have been jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. What do you think about his work?

“I have seen his movie, I think it’s very well done, very strong. And I think it has to be very stark and real, because his own country was in such deep denial, and was being led to believe that it was not real. And so I think he really had to shock his own citizens of America into the reality of what was happening.

“I think it was a real stroke of genius for a Norwegian to jointly nominate me and Al Gore. Because he’s so high-profile, an American vice-president. To put us together jointly has really propelled my issue forward, an Inuit story and all the Arctic issues even further by doing it jointly. So that was great.”

Watt-Cloutier and Gore have never met, she says. “No, he has never made an effort. When I was in Washington not long ago, some of my team tried to contact his, but he was busy. I am not in pursuit of Al Gore and his entourage myself, I just do what I need to do for this issue. I honour his work, but that’s as far as it goes.”

Gore’s film causes some to say: this problem is so enormous, there’s nothing we can do about it. Do you never have the feeling that the fight against climate change is an impossible mission?

“No, I’ve never brought that sense of powerlessness to my leadership. Even though we feel like we are the net recipients, we feel like we are the victims of all this, it’s important to come to the world from a position of strength. I was very engaged in the global community at the UN level that led to the Stockholm Convention [a treaty to eliminate persistent organic pollutants]. Through that work, I was left with an impression that the world can do the right thing when it sets its mind to it.

“We’re not asking the world to stop all development, we’re not even asking ourselves to go back in time and be put in a museum. We’re asking the world for balanced development that will look at these issues, and that whenever you are creating economic policies, you’re looking at the environmental impact. And that economic policies and environmental policies should be meshing together very nicely, so that the next generation can thrive.

“We have to rethink how we do business every day, and realize that what you do in your backyard, in your country, can have a very negative impact on an entire way of life of a people. We are all responsible for one another, we are a shared humanity. And it is very important that we start to take responsibility for one another.

“Climate change is a large issue, there are many vested interests in keeping the status quo. But we can make changes very effectively if we all come together as a global community to address it. It can be done. The planet is a living, breathing entity. If there’s something being done to help the planet, it will kick in its own system. We don’t realize how powerful this planet is.”

This post is also available in: Dutch

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