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The Rise of Inuit Activism in a Changing Arctic

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is one of the toughest, most influential Inuit activists in Canada. Her perspective on the effects of toxic chemicals and climate change on the Arctic have transformed the issues of science, politics and economics into those of human rights.

Written by Véronique Morin Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Sheila Watt-Cloutier transformed the dialogue on climate change to include the issue of human rights.Sheila Watt-Cloutier

OTTAWA, Canada: Speaking at WWF-Canada’s Ocean Summit held in Ottawa last week, longtime Inuit activist and former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Sheila Watt-Cloutier argued that the fate of the Arctic transcends the political, economic and scientific spheres, and should be fought at the legal level, with the language of human rights.

“Knowing that the Arctic is the air conditioner of our planet, and that it is breaking down at an unprecedented speed, it seems to me that it would be the business of the world to keep us alive,” said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, whose active involvement as a voice of the Inuit people led her to receive multiple honorary degrees, awards and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2007.

An Inuk from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in Northern Quebec, Watt-Cloutier was the first to link human rights to climate change. “I spent the first 10 years of my life travelling in dogsled, fishing for food,” she said. In a matter of a few decades, that livelihood has dramatically changed. The presence of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the fish and animals they eat and melting ice and snow threaten Inuit health, safety and security.

Recent and ongoing changes in the Arctic are profound and challenge Inuit cultural and environmental human rights – the “right to be cold,” as she states in the title of her book. “We are a hunting, gathering, fishing people, and with the melting of the ice, it has become increasingly difficult to gather food and practice our culture,” she said.

A few hours before Watt-Cloutier walked on stage, Shell Canada announced it had relinquished its oil and gas exploration permits near Lancaster Sound in the eastern Arctic. “This is astounding,” said Watt-Cloutier, breaking away from her prepared speech. “I never thought I would ever say something like this but, I commend Shell for that.”

Inuit have fought since the early 1970s to protect the zone as a National Marine Conservation Area. Although the news doesn’t guarantee that the once-permitted zone will be included in the boundaries of the conservation area, Inuit leaders perceive it as a good step forward.

“Nothing focuses the mind more than litigation,” said Paul Crowley, VP-Arctic with the WWF-Canada, which filed a lawsuit in April demanding Shell’s permits be invalidated. “The Inuit community had been asking since 1971 that the area be protected. It was traumatizing to them and to the land that it wasn’t for all this time, and we are still evaluating the impact of that,” said Crowley.

The first successful campaign that involved Inuit, in the 1980s, led to the Stockholm Convention on POPs, which banned 12 persistent organic pollutants referred to as the “dirty dozen,” including DDT and PCBs. The U.N. treaty was signed quickly, ratified and enforced due to Inuit’s role, said Watt-Cloutier.

Although Inuit continue to feel the impact of POPs, because these substances remain in the environment, Watt-Cloutier sees the treaty as a tremendous victory – and one to build upon. “We [Inuit people] did it with pollutants in the 1980s. We are able to move mountains,” she said. “We should lead the world on the climate change battle.”

“There are 155,000 Inuit living north of the 66th parallel. It is incredible that they were heard at the international level despite their small population,” said Crowley, who credits the leadership of Inuit women, including Watt-Cloutier. “They speak with a voice of integrity. That is what distinguishes them.”

“I remember when Sheila first brought up the question of human rights at a meeting in Milan in early 2000. The meeting was very dry and technical. She started talking about people and how the changing climate was affecting her people. It was like an oasis in the desert,” said Crowley.

“Before Sheila’s leadership on this issue, even the human rights community was not convinced until it was finally adopted in COP21 (Conference of the Parties) last December,” said Crowley, who was her legal counsel before he joined WWF-Canada.

“Our success is due to effective collaborative work with other indigenous peoples,” said Okalik Eegeesiak, the current chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). She is also quick to praise Watt-Cloutier for her leading role. “Her influence is huge. Where do I start? The human rights argument is her initiative.”

It took 15 years of campaigning and lobbying governments to finally have the survival and livelihood of the Indigenous peoples linked to climate change and included in the final texts of the COP21.COP21 could have been stronger and more explicit detailing our implication, but it is a step forward,” said Eegeesiak.

“What Sheila did is to put a human face of the issues that we are confronted with,” said ICC Canada president, Nancy Karetak-Lindell. “It is very easy to forget when drafting policies in Ottawa that there are human tragedies linked to the changing climate of the Arctic.”

Despite her success, Watt-Cloutier can also be be critical.“We have too many institutions that overlap. There is a danger to that,” she said. In order to pursue a successful campaign on the international level, these institutions have to become more coordinated and efficient, she said.

It is a sentiment echoed by her successor, Karetak-Lindell: “The way we have been doing things in the past no longer works. We have to move forward by embracing alternative energies, for instance.”

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