Revisiting The Right to Be Cold

Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold is the feminist book we need to weather the climate crisis. Speaking from her experience as an Inuk woman growing up in Nunavik, Watt-Cloutier guides the reader through the culture and wisdom of northern people.

The book opens with a tour of her early childhood of ice and snow. “The world I was born into has changed forever,” she writes. The Through her detail-rich storytelling, we enter a world of qamutiik (sleds) and cloudberries, and delicacies like misiraq (fermented seal oil) and muttaq (whale skin with a layer of blubber).

Watt-Cloutier humanizes the north. It’s not just a place of polar bears and seals, but where a complex Inuit hunter-gatherer culture thrives in close relationship with the land and ice.

Watt-Cloutier details the experience of being separated from her family and attending boarding school at the Churchill Vocational Centre in Manitoba. While there were moments of adolescent joy (dancing to the Beatles), the system profoundly alienated Watt-Cloutier from her family’s culture. “The institutional approach to learning was thrust upon us and all but eliminated the traditional way in which we educated our children—through the discipline of the land.”

Not content to bequeath her grandchildren a world in crisis, Watt-Cloutier leveraged her power as a public speaker (and an introvert at heart) to become Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) from 1995-2002. During these years, she worked tirelessly to bring the Inuit hunter’s voice into international climate negotiations. Watt-Cloutier and her ICC colleagues were largely responsible for framing climate change as a human rights issue. Much of current gains in indigenous representation in international climate negotiations can be attributed to her insistence on being vocal in the way that climate change threatens Inuit cultural survival.

“Whatever happens in the poles will eventually happen everywhere else,” she writes. Climate change is occurring in the Arctic twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, with a predicted 5 to 7 degree Celsius temperature rise in the next century. The speed of those changes in the Arctic means that there’s little time for indigenous communities to adapt. Threatening the animals that Inuit hunters rely on threaten the very existence of Inuit culture. “Our hunters and elders were carefully observing nature. They were finely attuned to small changes. They knew what to look for. They were experts because they had to be: their daily survival on the land and ice depended on it,” she writes.

Watt-Cloutier outlines the impacts of climate change as they were witnessed by members of her community: early thaws and late freezes, melting sea and shore ice, increased precipitation, reduced snow cover, disappearing permafrost, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, flooding, suffering animal populations, and the arrival of new plant, animal and insect species. She also frames climate change as a spiritual loss.

“The difficulties with hunting meant that our people had less country food to eat and were becoming more reliant on southern food—a nutritional and economic challenge, but also a spiritual loss,” she writes. “It was becoming increasingly difficult for us to pass on our traditional knowledge, survival skills and cultural richness to our children.”

This relentless reframing of climate change and environmental degradation as a human rights issue earned Watt-Cloutier the honor of Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2007. “We all have the right to be protected from climate change,” she writes.

The story of Watt-Cloutier’s life functions as a rally cry for future generations of activists to listen deeply to indigenous voices, consider climate change as a human rights issue, and act accordingly. We are strongest when we center the voices of those most impacted by the climate crisis. In this political climate, that strength matters more than ever.

Devi Lockwood has been traveling in 11 countries, mostly by bicycle, to record 1,001 stories from people she meets about water and climate change since the September 2014 People’s Climate March in NYC. You can find those stories at devi-lockwood.com. Devi attended COP22, the 2016 U.N. talks on climate change, as a youth delegate with SustainUS.

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