The following book review is brought to you by Northwest Territories Chapter of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.

 As part of its monthly Book Review Forum, the IPAC NWT Regional Group is pleased to present the following review for the month of May: Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, The Arctic and The Whole Planet.Canada: Penguin Canada Books Inc.

“We Inuit are the ground-truthers of climate change” (324).

“By protecting the Arctic, you save the planet” (233).

While it is a great many things, The Right To Be Cold is fundamentally a book about impressive leadership and the future of Canada. And through its historical lens, it is also a story of Canada: a country with a troubled past, continuing to struggle to create a common set of narratives for all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

To know Sheila (or, Siila, pronounced SEE-LA in Inuktitut) Watt-Cloutier is to understand her personal journey. Born of a qallunaat (white) father and Inuk mother but raised by the latter, Siila initially enjoyed a traditional upbringing on the land. However, this was soon disrupted. As was the case for so many Indigenous youth of the time, Watt-Cloutier was separated from her family and forced to undergo schooling elsewhere. As it did for many of her fellow Inuit, this split unmoored her from her cultural foundations and identity at a critical time, and caused a great deal of pain and uncertainty.

For instance, Siila recounts how during her forced relocation for schooling to Churchill, Manitoba, three Inuit fellow students naively set out to track a polar bear and the result was tragedy: “I’m struck by the fact that we Inuit children had been removed from the people who world have taught us life-saving skills about our Arctic wildlife” (46). Even from this single example it’s not hard to see how so many other Inuit teachings and traditions were missed on account of such wrongheaded policies.

To know and understand Watt-Cloutier is to recognize the various wrongs visited upon her and her people, but also to recognize the incredible strength and resiliency that she and they exemplify. Indeed, as Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Attorney General of Canada, has recently and wisely argued, “for reconciliation to fully manifest itself in Canada, denial must be ended in all of its aspects, and recognition must become the foundation of relations” (Globe and Mail, July 18, 2017). Similarly, understanding the effects of dislocation and dispossession on our Indigenous fellow citizens is critical to coming together and building a Canada that understands its uncomfortable history and is committed to effectively addressing it.

Sadly, there is much to recognize. However, work to recognize and resolve it we must; for as Watt-Cloutier warns, “if our parents and grandparents haven’t had the opportunity to deal with their issues, [then] their children carry that baggage and have to work through it for them” (279). To be sure, the Canada we wish to build depends on collectively working through these issues.

One thing that should be both remarkable and inspirational to northerners is that, while Watt-Cloutier first cut her teeth in politics and governance in Kuujjuaq, the impact of her leadership has been felt around the globe. Indeed, it was during her leadership at the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) that Watt-Cloutier did her most important and impressive work addressing the matter of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Recognizing how faraway actions could affect Inuit life at home, Watt-Cloutier has remarked that “our challenges are local, but they were [and are] part of something global” (121).

For aspiring leaders, there is much to learn in Watt-Cloutier’s nuanced approach. In her words:

By favouring a “politics of influence, rather than the politics of protest” (179), Watt-Cloutier sophisticatedly sought allies in island nations who – like the Inuit – were experiencing the earliest impacts of climate change and could join in helping make convincing arguments about its reality and the need to address it. In taking this approach, she demonstrated how the greatest domestic and global challenges require a keen understanding of human behaviour, the powers of persuasion and that there is strength in numbers.

Although Watt-Cloutier succeeded in making significant headway at an international level while working with the ICC, she often faced unexpected challenges at home. She recounts how at an United Nations’ Conference of the Parties meeting in 2003, they could not get the Canadian delegation to even mention the Arctic in their submission, nor to stress its importance as an indicator of climate change’s adverse effects (229).

Another example can be found in the unfortunate reality that Watt-Cloutier’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize had to come from two Norwegian parliamentarians, Conservative MP Børge Brende and Socialist Left Party MP Heidi Sørensen, rather than from a fellow Canadian; indeed, it is symptomatic of our problem. As she remarked, “the Nobel nomination seemed to make my own country wake up to my work, to ask who I was and what my message was all about in a way they hadn’t before” (265). We will not have achieved the Canada we wish to build until Indigenous peoples and interests are equally reflected in the accomplishments we choose to celebrate.

Our country’s voice in the world will be strengthened when Indigenous interests play a more formative in it. With respect to climate change, Watt-Cloutier has pointed out that:

She is right to underscore that “the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face” (259).

Ever the effective diplomat, Watt-Cloutier recognizes that the art of persuasion lies in forging common interests. For instance, in her work to protect the environment of the Inuit and their way of life, Watt-Cloutier has had to map out and connect those various international interests. Thus, to effectively respond to international colleagues who fail to see those common interests, she has argued that “the rights we’re fighting for are [their] rights too. Just as our environment is [their] environment too. That’s why we want people like [them] to join us. We all have the right to be protected from climate change” (231). Matters like the environment have a way of connecting us all and giving us common purpose.

In her excellent work to limit the global production of POPs, Watt-Cloutier has also demonstrated how Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit Traditional Knowledge) and Western science can complement one another in understanding and addressing the climate change challenges before us (199).

If we define leadership as the art of influencing human behaviour in order to accomplish a specific objective; then for Watt-Cloutier her work has always been about the imperative of leadership, that is, the need to lead and improve conditions for her people. This is beautiful in so many ways. For one, it reveals a form of leadership based on principle. Second, it reminds us all that leadership is not necessarily the purview of a special few; it can be our response to a challenge or problem needing resolution. Leadership, Watt-Cloutier remarks:

It is, of course, a key source of personal growth. Watt-Cloutier remarks “that “checking inward” and the personal growth that accompanies such introspection have been, I believe, instrumental to my own ability to succeed” (268).

Effective leadership and collective betterment means always keeping an eagle-eyed focus on what can be continually improved. In Watt-Cloutier’s time with the Kativik School Board, she had to deliver frank assessments about how the board could improve Inuit pedagogy and what might be corrected; much of this was met with defensiveness rather than appreciation (95). Leadership requires independent judgment and the courage to objectively assess efforts. However, telling it as it is also requires great tact and an ethic of “reaching out, not striking out” (294).

In an era where many Indigenous citizens are negotiating for themselves how best to preserve cultural traditions in the space of an ever-evolving present, Watt-Cloutier stands out for her ability to reconcile Inuit traditions in the contemporary context and to do so with an international sensibility. She argues that “our students also needed to learn about the world beyond their own doorstep, including environmental, political, economic and business issues—so they could see global changes coming their way and interact with the world more effectively. Global cultural access would be an important part of giving them a sense of control” (113).

Further, Watt-Cloutier refreshingly contends that “hunting culture is not a fondly remembered relic of the past. It’s not history. It’s a continuing contemporary way of life. And it’s perfectly compatible with the modern world” (320). To wit, she explains:

Treaty 8 Grand Chief Anthony Mercredi once wisely proclaimed: “we regard the right to be different not as an obstacle but as a foundation for our coexistence as distinct peoples”. Indeed, the task before our country is to recognize, understand and embrace that difference and to make sure that it forms part of what it means to be Canadian, both at home and abroad. Watt-Cloutier’s bold example challenges us to broaden the very conception of our self as a country. She states that “I believe the full meaning of our lives and the reason we are all here is to rewrite our histories” (284); the same can be said of our purpose with respect to defining a future Canada.

Nakurmiik for your leadership Siila. Perhaps you might consider running for Member of Parliament and continue helping us write a new history for the Canada we desire?

CHRISTIAN ALLAN BERTELSEN is the Acting Regional Director, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Wildlife Services Northern Region . A proud northerner, his research interests focus on identity, discourse and ethics. This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IPAC or the Government of Canada.


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