Sheila Watt-Cloutier, now 65, is an Inuit activist who initially gained notoriety in the early 2000s as one of the first individuals to reframe climate change as a human rights issue.
Chris Windeyer/The Canadian Press
For Sheila Watt-Cloutier, climate change has never been just a matter of the environment. It’s a matter of people.The 65-year-old Inuit activist gained international attention in the early 2000s as one of the first to reframe climate change as a human rights issue, drawing a link between the effects of climate change and threats to Inuit culture and traditions. She has thrice served as president of the international Inuit Circumpolar Council, and in 2007 was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.With arctic temperatures reaching record levels, climate activists like Greta Thunberg grabbing global headlines, and fires and floods displacing thousands in Canada, Watt-Cloutier’s message is resonating more.We caught up with her to talk about her hope for the next generation and her right to be cold. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)Q: How does climate change impact Inuit rights?A: For us, it’s never just been about our environment. It’s always been about our way of life. Mainly it’s about our health and well-being because of the toxins that end up in our food chain as a result of organic pollutants, and climate change creating havoc on our harvesting practices.We lose seasoned hunters as a result of what is happening with the unpredictable ice conditions. It costs a lot more on our own pocket books, because people have to use longer routes to get to the same harvesting areas that they have harvested for generations. It impacts us on every front.Q: Have you been busy with speaking engagements lately?A: In the last six months, things have really picked up because there’s so much more evidence of what’s happening to our planet. People’s lives and livelihoods everywhere are now being affected, whether it’s by wildfires or droughts or floods. All these things (the Inuit) have been signalling to the world for the last 15 to 20 years. We were the early warning, and now it’s arrived for the rest of the world.Q: And you spoke at We Love Green, a French techno music festival?A: I was initially just there to be interviewed by (French newspaper) Le Monde. Then (festival) organizers said, “We’ve got a lot of young people here, and we’d like you to do a call to action.” They really connected to everything I said. It made me realize that the youth movement, whether it’s Greta Thunberg, or our own youth leaders here … there is going to be hope and action with that generation.Q: What do you most want people to understand?A: Think about the interconnectedness of the arctic ice. What happens in the arctic doesn’t stay in the arctic. It’s affecting the rest of the planet. The arctic is the air conditioner for the world, and it’s breaking down.People need to listen to those who are most affected in the far north, whose ice is melting, whose livelihoods are affected, whose health is affected, and understand how that connects back to them. Then we can understand better that our planet is one, and that if we protect the arctic, we save the planet.The Inuit right to be cold is connected to everyone’s right to a healthy environment.Craig Kielburger is co-founder of theWE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.