Reflecting on a girlhood spent in the Arctic town of Kuujjuaq, Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes herself as “a cautious child who didn’t like taking big risks.” That characterization may seem surprising coming from an Inuk woman who has arguably done more than anyone to raise awareness of how environmental pollutants and climate change have affected circumpolar peoples. Playful though it may sound, the title of her memoir-cum-manifesto refers to Watt-Cloutier’s very serious attempt – along with a team of environmental lawyers and other Inuit – to reframe the climate change debate as a human rights issue: tireless work that earned her a joint nomination, along with Al Gore, for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Soberingly, much of the cultural and environmental decline Watt-Cloutier details has occurred within her lifetime. Born in 1953, the author was raised by her mother and grandmother in traditional Inuit fashion (her father, whom she never met, was a white RCMP officer). Most of her teens, however, were spent in the south, including a stint at a government-run residential school. That she speaks of the experience in mostly positive terms – the school’s emphasis on discipline dovetailed nicely with the discipline endemic to her culture – is just one of the many things that makes her story so singular.
When Watt-Cloutier returned to the Arctic as an adult to work in the health-care sector, the problems that now make for familiar headlines – substance abuse, unemployment, suicide – were only just starting to manifest themselves. A desire to improve the lot of her people led to an 11-year run as the head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where Watt-Cloutier focused on the elimination of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that were cropping up in the Arctic environment. In this, and in her more recent work on climate change, scientists have often been Watt-Cloutier’s biggest allies (environmentalists and animal-rights activists less so, partly due to the politicization of the seal hunt). Her lengthy descriptions of this important work are not for the acronym-averse, but that’s part of the point: the geographical remoteness of the Arctic means that many of its battles are fought in conference halls, not on the tundra.
Lucid and deeply inspiring, The Right to Be Cold comes at another pivotal moment for the Arctic and its peoples. There is, however, nothing parochial about this book or about Watt-Cloutier’s approach. What makes it potent and alarming is her ability to apply a key notion of Inuit culture – the interconnectedness of things and people – on a truly global level.