rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a trailblazer for Inuit rights and the environment in the North

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Looking back, Sheila Watt-Cloutier sees connections between her personal struggles as an Inuk girl and her public leadership decades later, addressing the environmental crises that afflicted her people. At the age of ten, when she was sent for schooling away from her Northern community, she experienced significant trauma from being separated from her culture and people. But reading Watt-Cloutier’s reflections in her book The Right To Be Cold, such events, no less than the ecological disasters, become symptoms of the wounds dealt to the North and to the rights of its collective peoples.

In Watt-Cloutier’s telling, the connections become apparent. The curriculum in the residential school in Churchill, Manitoba that she attended for three years, emphasized what the authorities considered to be useful skills. But "useful" to them often meant something quite different than to people in the North. There, a young man’s ability to prepare a dogsled for hunting on icy terrain and a young woman’s ability to create warm clothing from the skins after the hunt were skills the whole community relied on. The residential school teaching of welding and carpentry to boys and sewing and housekeeping to girls may have been well-intentioned, but it ignored the realities of surviving and living in the unique ecosystem that the Inuit come from. Not to mention what was lost in terms of the character building and the wisdom taught from the ice and snow.

Unfortunately, that ecosystem itself would soon come under assault, again because decision-makers failed to imagine the impact of their actions on a people far away "at the top of the world." This became especially clear toward the end of the 20th century, with the discovery of an environmental threat from toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are widely used in manufacturing as well as in controlling pests that harm agriculture or carry diseases such as malaria. Though there is virtually no use for these chemicals in the Arctic, scientists in the 1980s discovered very high levels of them in the marine mammals and in the nursing milk of Inuit women.

No one had set out to harm the Inuit with these chemicals; rather, people and companies generating these chemicals, many of them in far-away countries and regions, simply lacked any notion that the Arctic ecosystem provided perfect storage conditions for these dangerous substances. POPs evaporate in hot climates and are carried by wind currents until they condense again in the coldest parts of the world. There, they accumulate in the air, the water, and the body fat of people and animals that ingest these. Mothers pass the toxins on to their babies, and as those babies grow the chemical impacts can manifest themselves in cancers, organ failure, and neurological problems.

Watt-Cloutier came to the struggle against POPs and the poisoning of the Northern environment at the turn of the millennium. As Canadian President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, she worked first to raise awareness about the human cost of POPs and then to help negotiate the UN Stockholm Convention, an international legal instrument to ban their use. It was often an emotional campaign because families in the South were as concerned about giving up the DDT that protected their children from malaria as the Inuit mothers were to protect their babies from these toxins.

In 2000, as the negotiations of the Stockholm Convention were wrapping up, Watt-Cloutier became involved in a government-backed international forum, the Arctic Council, collaborating on a research project that provided evidence for annual warming and melting in the Arctic. She remained involved in climate change activism, viewing it through the lens of the human rights of the Inuit. In 2005, she filed a legal petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) alleging the violation of Inuit human rights by practices contributing to climate change.

Though the IACHR ultimately did not hear the "Inuit Legal Petition," it stands as the first international human rights legal action ever advanced on the basis of climate change. Then again, for Watt-Cloutier, and for the Inuit more generally, degradation of the environment has always directly threatened their rights to life, to remain healthy, and to maintain their unique cultural heritage.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Like this article? Please chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.