Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Sheila Watt-Cloutier (Figure 1) is an Inuit activist and champion involved in a range of social and environmental issues. Born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik (northern Quebec), she was raised in a traditional family and travelled by dogsled for the first decade of her life. At age 10 she was sent to school in Nova Scotia and later in Churchill, Manitoba. At McGill University she studied psychology and sociology, then worked as a translator at Ungava Hospital in Nunavik and became active in community advocacy.

Watt-Cloutier has been a long-time political representative for the Inuit. In 1995 she served as the corporate secretary of Makivik Corporation, the land claims organization established for Nunavik. That same year, she was elected president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a position she held until 2003. As president of the ICC, Watt-Cloutier represented the interests of the Inuit in Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Greenland, and was involved in negotiating the Stockholm Convention banning the manufacture and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including PCBs and DDT. Following her time as president, Watt-Cloutier was elected as the international chair of the ICC, a position she held until 2006.

Along with 62 Inuit hunters and elders from Canada and Alaska, Watt-Cloutier launched the first legal action on climate change. Alarmed by the results of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which forecasts that Inuit hunting and culture may not survive a loss of sea ice, Watt-Cloutier and other Inuit submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR). They proclaimed that unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases from the United States have violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights. While the petition was not heard by the IACHR, Watt-Cloutier was invited to testify along with various legal representatives at the first hearing on human rights and climate change in 2007.

Whenever Watt-Cloutier speaks about the harmful effects of climate change she often refers to the traditional Inuit hunt. She explains that hunting is about far more than obtaining food—it is also a rite of passage that teaches youth essential life lessons. She says, “People might ask who needs to hunt anymore. The hunt is a powerful experience that sustains us spiritually and culturally. We gain wisdom from the hunt. It teaches us to be brave and to withstand stress, to be patient and creative. We learn sound judgement through the hunt. Without those skills, one can’t survive”.1

In recognition of her work, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has received numerous awards and honours. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada, holds the Order of Greenland, and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize along with Al Gore, former vice-president of the United States. In addition to receiving over a dozen honorary degrees, Watt-Cloutier has been recognized as a visionary and leader by Time magazine, Rolling Stone, and the Globe and Mail.