The Right to Be Cold: Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s urgent memoir

It’s fascinating to read about the lives of people who make a difference in the world, especially when you’ve been fortunate enough to meet them. I met Sheila Watt-Cloutier just as her star was rising on the global stage, just a few years before she would be nominated, alongside Al Gore, for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work bringing awareness to climate change and its disproportionate effect on the poles. 

Until I read this book, I had no idea what her life was like before that. 

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Watt-Cloutier grew up fatherless in Kuujjuaq. Her mother had three children, fathered by three different white men temporarily working in the North, all of whom left the family. Watt-Cloutier’s mother was herself the product of one of these temporary relationships, one of three children abandoned by the Hudson Bay Co. trader William Watt. 

Like Watt-Cloutier’s family tree, this book is complicated. It offers a detailed account of the negotiations that led to the international agreement to prevent the spread of Persistent Organic Pollutants that disproportionately affect the Arctic. It recounts the delivery of emergency food aid to Russian Inuit following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It chronicles the struggles to provide a good education to Inuit in northern Quebec, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s human rights lawsuit challenging the U.S. government’s inaction on greenhouse gas emissions. 

But as Watt-Cloutier herself has said again and again in her efforts to persuade politicians to act on climate change, it’s the human story that is the most essential, and that’s what is most valuable here. 

“Despite all the challenges that were to come for me and my Arctic home, my early years were happy ones, filled with love, security and a profound sense of belonging,” Watt-Cloutier writes in the book’s first paragraph. “I grew up in the presence of strong, independent women and in the arms of a community that was in the midst of great changes, but was still close-knit, inclusive and supportive.” 

It didn’t last. In 1963, at age 10, Watt-Cloutier was sent to school in Nova Scotia where it was believed she would get a better education. “It would mark the beginning of a series of losses that I would struggle with into adulthood,” she writes.

Nothing terrible happened in the home where Watt-Cloutier was billeted, but the sense of estrangement from her family, her grandmother, her culture and her home grew distinct. Nothing terrible, I should say, until the day when Watt-Cloutier learns her letters home are being censored (to spare her family from worrying). The sense of having her voice taken away, alongside everything else, wounds deeply. 

At the end of this experience, Watt-Cloutier is moved again, this time to Churchill Vocational School. By the time she moves back to Kuujjuaq, at age 18, she’ll also have lived with four different families in Ottawa to finish high school. Along the way, she’ll have developed the goal of becoming a doctor, but won’t quite make the grades to do so. “In hindsight, I have often wondered why tutoring wasn’t offered to help me raise the marks in my weaker subjects. Instead, it seemed easier for the counsellors to offer, with their discouraging remarks, a less ambitious route for me.” 

Anyone who’s met Watt-Cloutier knows she is not at ease in the world. She’s powerful, almost regal, and kind beyond description, but also just … uneasy. It’s hard to imagine her spending her teenage years living with a long list of strangers. Harder still to imagine her taking the stage to fight the existential threat of climate change. She describes herself as an introvert, exhausted by social interaction; someone who learns to speak to a crowd rather than enjoys it. What drives her? 

Watt-Cloutier returned home, at age 18, to a changed world, one ravaged by alcohol and dislocation as profound as her own. In spite of her own estrangement, she seems to count herself lucky and begins to work hard to right the wrongs she sees in the hope of restoring the village where she grew up. 

She’s aided in this by an unusual willingness to be — how shall I put this? — disliked. After alienating her colleagues at the Kativik School Board with her critiques, to the point where she resigns in frustration, Watt-Cloutier goes on to join the Nunavik Education Task Force, a commission struck to critique with even more force. Elected as corporate secretary to Makivik Corp., Watt-Cloutier takes on yet another battle: ending smoking in the corporate boardroom. “I remember mockery for my choice of words and angry body language. As a former smoker, I should have known I was picking a ferocious fight. However, we got over it, and I think people eventually appreciated the change.” 

Watt-Cloutier’s other major battle, described in a chapter of its own, is with Inuit groups who want to profit from oil and gas, thus weakening her moral argument that Inuit deserve protection from climate change. On this subject, she listens with compassion, but concludes that she is in the right and presses on.

This forcefulness, this sense of duty to history, is a major part of Watt-Cloutier, and it’s what makes this book a good read, though not an easy one. Prepare for pages and pages of acronyms (if you think federal bureaucracy is bad, try the international kind); prepare for score-settling detail on complex and arcane negotiations. 

But prepare also for some profound wisdom from an important and deeply examined life. 

The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet
By Sheila Watt-Cloutier
Penguin Books, 2015
337 pages

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