Sheila Watt-Cloutier is poised with stealth and patience, her eye on the prize, as she takes on the U.S. government in a human rights case that pits her Inuit way of life against the environmental poisoning of the Arctic.
There’s no place on the planet she would rather be. It’s –25 C on this December day in Iqaluit. The remnants of a frost-bleary sun are sinking into Frobisher Bay at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It’ll be pitch dark by 3 p.m. The only thing that breaks a solid panorama of ice and snow outside the living room window is a massive raven soaring by Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s house as if signalling solidarity with the Inuk woman inside who claims, “We have the human right to be cold.”
It’s a jarring juxtaposition from a woman who exudes warmth and is as quick to offer a visitor a steaming bowl of soup as a bite of frozen raw seal liver. “Go ahead – it’s delicious and good for you,” she says, pushing the red tidbit forward.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, 54, known all over the north by her Inuit name Siila, is one of those overnight success stories that was 10 years in the making. She’s the woman who ratcheted up the stakes on climate change by turning it into a human rights issue and taking on the mighty U.S. government.
But like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, she has that elusive it factor that has catapulted her and her cause to world fame. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007. She’d already received the prestigious Sophie prize from Norway in 2005, the Champion of the Earth award from the UN the same year, the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2004 and a dozen other honours for the stand she’s taken on the right of the Inuit to preserve their way of life. Now, she’s photographed with superstars like Robert Redford. At the Bill Clinton Global Initiative in New York, she had meetings with Hillary Clinton and dined alongside the Prince of Norway and Barbra Streisand while being serenaded by Tony Bennett.
But she doesn’t want to talk about any of that on this frigid afternoon on Baffin Island. She wants to talk about hunters. “They’re the ones who know this land, this Arctic. They know this place is like an early warning system for the rest of the world. The hunter is the sentinel. He’s on the snow and ice and witnesses the changes first.” What’s more, she says, the hunting culture that she embraces is not just about killing an animal. “It’s a learning ground for life skills, parenting skills. It fosters patience, judgment and courage. Put that together, and you’re teaching the children to be wise, calm, reflective and to make right choices in life. Hunting is a powerful place to foster those skills.”
But the ice in the north is melting, the animals and fish are carrying the toxic wastes from the south, the hunters can’t reach their prey as they once did and the 50,000 people who make up Canada’s Inuit are paying the price with their health and livelihood. The wisdom and ingenuity of the hunter that has served the Inuit for millennia is in danger of being lost forever.