Video: Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Inuit’s Challenge in the Arctic

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Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization: A Celebration of Victories, Rights and Cultures, November 23, 2006by Democracy Now!


Sheila Watt-Cloutier talks about the changes occurring in the Arctic region due to climate change and what that means for the Inuit people. She argues for the right to be cold.

Video Details

Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization: A Celebration of Victories, Rights and Cultures
Running time
15m 22s
New York, USA, November 23, 2006
Democracy Now!
About Sheila Watt-Cloutier
Former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is the former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council that represents more than 150,000 Inuit of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia. She is a longtime defender of Inuit rights and has been the political spokesperson for the Inuit for more than a decade.


For those of you who don’t know, we Inuit live in four countries of Canada, Alaska, USA, Greenland and Russia. And we’re about 155,000 Inuit in the entire world, at the top of the world, in the land of the cold, the ice and the snow.

And we lived very, very traditionally not so long ago. Rapid, tumultuous change has come to our homelands in my lifetime. In fact, I traveled only with my family only by dog team on the ice and snow the first ten years of my life. So you can appreciate and imagine what that—that changes has happened so very quickly in our homelands in the Arctic. And, of course, that kind of tumultuous change, together with historical traumas, have created an incredible breakdown of our society in the Arctic. And we rate one of the highest suicide rates of our young men in North America. And so, this is the backdrop in which all these other new changes on the new wave is happening.

The first wave arrived in my lifetime, in my mother’s lifetime, in my grandmother’s lifetime. And now, the second wave is really coming hard, and that’s environmental degradation. So we are already experiencing rapid changes, which is human-induced climate change. We have experienced, of course, the poisoning of our country food as a result of toxins coming from afar and had to deal with that intensely at the global level. And in fact, I worked very closely with Tom Goldtooth around the world, as we negotiated the Stockholm Convention with the global community to stop these toxins from getting into our food source, into our bodies, and in high, high levels in the Arctic in the nursing milk of our mothers. And so, environmental issues indeed are not just about the environment. When it comes to indigenous peoples, they are very much about the health and well-being of not only our bodies, but of course our cultural survival.

So we in the Arctic, of course, for generations, Inuit, we have closely been observing the environment, and we have accurately predicted the weather around us that has enabled us to travel safely on the sea ice to hunt our marine mammals, our walrus and our polar bears. And so, nowhere else in the world really does ice and snow represent transportation, mobility and life for a peoples. And ice and snow, in fact, are our highways that bring us out to the supermarkets, which is the environment, and links us to each other, to other communities.

And several communities already, as we speak, are so damaged by global warming and climate changes that relocation at the cost of millions of dollars is now the only option. And among the harm that we have suffered both in Canada and Alaska, just to name a few, because in the absence of time, I don’t want to go into them in too much detail, but just to give you an example of the damages on the roads and the runways that are already damaged, the eroded landscape, the contaminated drinking water, the coastal losses because of erosion, the melting permafrost that is now causing beach slumping and increased snowfall in some areas, not enough snow in other areas, longer sea ice free seasons. New species of birds and fish and insects have arrived in the Arctic, which we don’t even have names for half the time. There is unpredictable sea ice conditions. Glaciers are melting, creating torrent rivers instead of streams, and now we have more drownings and we have, as a result of the unpredictability and condition of the ice, as well as torrents now instead of streams, where our hunters thought they could cross safely, there’s also large plans now to relocate some of our communities. And it’s becoming very stark, and it’s becoming a real dangerous reality for many of us up there. And so, it is starting to undermine the ecosystem, of course, on the very land, the ice, and the snow that we depend for our own physical and cultural survival.

And science now has caught up to our hunters, what we have been saying for years. And our hunters are our scientists in their own right. They may not have institutional recognition, but by goodness, they are scientists in their own right. And they have been observing these changes for decades. And in 2003, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment released the world’s most comprehensive detailed assessment, regional assessment of climate change, and it was prepared by more than 300 scientists from 15 countries, but it included the traditional knowledge throughout this process, because we said it had to, and we said enough of further research that would not effectively benefit our people of the Arctic.

And so, I just want to read two quick key conclusions of this assessment, which are very stark reading for the peoples of the Arctic and particularly Inuit. And it says marine species dependent on sea ice, including polar bears, ice-living seals, walrus and some marine birds, are very likely to decline, with some facing extinction. And two, for Inuit, warming is likely to disrupt or even destroy their hunting and food-sharing culture, as reduced sea ice causes populations to decline or become extinct. So, you see climate change is not just an environmental issue with unwelcome economic consequences. It really is a matter of livelihood, food, individual and cultural survival. And it is absolutely a human issue affecting our children, affecting our families, and certainly our communities. And the Arctic is not a wilderness or a frontier. It is our home. It is our homeland.

And, of course, the hunting culture is so misunderstood, and I know that I am in a roomful of my own fellow indigenous peoples who understand that a hunting culture is not just about the killing of animals. It is about teaching our young children, our children, for the opportunities and challenges of life on the land, but very transferable skills, such as patience, courage, how to be bold under pressure, how to withstand stress, how not to be impulsive, how to have sound judgment, and ultimately wisdom. Those are the very things that traditional knowledges on hunting cultures teach and pass on to the younger generation. And these skills are so transferable and, in fact, a requirement to survive a transitioning culture such as ours and many others around the world.

And so, it’s more than meets the eye when we talk about environmental degradation of the Arctic, that this is very much about a peoples trying to make it in this new world order of globalization that affords us respect and a place in this world that we have always had.

And even with this compelling science that came from this Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, we continue to have these global challenges with many governments, including and especially the United States of America, and as well as Canada now, with the new government, we are having even more challenges when it comes to these issues. And so, even with the knowledge that governments have and still not act with a sense of urgency, the time when I was chair of ICC—my term just ended in July. I’m taking a breather to write a book and spend some time with my grandson who is now learning with his father to be a great hunter. He got his first bearded seal this summer. It was a big deal.

I took the route at the time to look at international human rights regimes that are in place to protect peoples from cultural extinction. The very thing that we are now challenged with in the Arctic, as we are faced with climate change, and the question always is, how can we bring some clarity and focus and purpose to a debate that always seems to be caught up in technical arguments and competing short-term economic ideologies? And I believed strongly at the time, and I still do, that it would be internationally significant if global climate change were debated and examined in the arena of human rights, an arena that many countries say, particularly those in the development world, Take seriously.

So, after two years of preparation with really strong people who felt this was the right thing and a legal team, I and 62 other Inuit from Canada and Alaska filed a petition, not just one that you sign your name, but a legal complaint that we took a lot of time to prepare, and we launched this on December 7, 2005, just this last winter, as we concluded that the 1948 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, may provide an effective means for us to defend our culture and our way of life. And what we’re doing here is we’re not asking necessarily for the world to take a complete economic backward step, but what we’re saying to the governments is, you must develop your economies using appropriate technologies that limit the pollution, that limit the greenhouse gases that are at the root of what is happening in the Arctic and the melting of the glaciers and the ice and the snow.

And we Inuit and other Northerners, of course, because we’re at peril, because governments are taking a short-term view that is favored by many businesses, in fact what we are doing here is we are defending our right to culture, our right to lands traditionally used and occupied, our right to health, our right to physical security, our right to our own means of subsistence and our rights to residence and movement. And as our culture, again, as I say, is based on the cold, the ice and snow, we are in essence defending our right to be cold.

And we do not wish to become a footnote in the history of globalization, because the predictions are stark. We may lose what I had as a child and that has given me the foundation upon which I do this work, my grandson may lose in his lifetime. So this is very much an issue of children, families, communities, and as we’re just coming out the other side of modernization, here comes this second wave. And this second wave, I fear, is going to be even more challenging. So it’s very real here.

And we have lived in the Arctic for millennia, and our culture and our economy reflects the land and all that it gives, and we are connected to our land, to our ice and to our snow. We want it to be cold. And our understanding of who we are and our age-old knowledge and wisdom comes from the land, and it is that struggle—and you all, I know, relate to this so well—to thrive in that kind of environment that gives us the answers. Always it gives us the answers that we need to survive in the modern world. Our young people, who are making it, are the ones that are spending as much time as they can out there, hunting and fishing and taking in what our elders are giving them, and it is that outlook, that respectful human outlook that sees connection to everything that should be informing the debate on climate change, as these monumental changes absolutely threatens the memory of who we were, who we are, and all that we wish to become. And so, we Inuit, and certainly many indigenous peoples from around the world and in the North, remain very connected with each other and with the land.

And I always ask the question to the global community, is it not to re-establish that connection that we are all here trying to deal with this issue? Is it not because people have lost that connection between themselves and their neighbors, between their actions and the environment, that we are debating this issue of climate change in the first place?

So, I think by putting the climate change in the arena of human rights, we have moved the focus from solely being that of a political, economic and technical issue to human impacts and consequences that do affect our children, our families and our communities. And we must remain vigilant in keeping climate change as a human and human rights issue.

And as I said earlier, Tom and I worked together with other indigenous peoples around the world to deal with this toxin issue that ends up in our bodies. And we were fairly effective and influential. In fact, we were able to exert influence well beyond our numbers as a people. Out of all proportion to our numbers, we were able to influence the global community. And I know that we can do the same in this issue of climate change, as well as many other issues, so I am not sure how that will go in terms of our petition that’s already in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that is based in Washington, D.C. It’s hard to gauge at this time, although some early indication may be that it might not go in our favor, but I think it’s really, really important that we as indigenous peoples and the global community who understand this issue for what it is, as a human and human rights issue, continue to shift support that movement and that way, because if we can connect and unify not only today in this room but around the world, we can certainly keep this as a human rights issue, and together I think we can keep this issue on the map.

So, please—I was hoping—because I’m a person that really doesn’t like structure, I was really hoping to finish before the bell rang, but it’s pretty close. So, thank you.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

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