In the Arctic, warming temperatures are threatening Inuit communities’ food security, health and livelihoods. In the latest episode of No Little Plans, we spoke to Inuit climate leader Siila Watt-Cloutier about how to correct Canada’s course.
In the Arctic, warming temperatures are threatening Inuit communities’ food security, health and livelihoods.In the latest episode of No Little Plans, we spoke to Inuit climate leader Siila Watt-Cloutier about how to correct Canada’s course.
When it comes to climate change, Canada has a colossal role to play: among G20 countries, we’re one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. At the same time, we’re home to some of the people most affected by the Earth’s warming climate. In Canada’s Arctic, temperatures are heating up at twice the global rate, thinning the sea ice that Inuit communities use for transportation and hunting. Permafrost is rapidly thawing, transforming the northern ecosystem and threatening infrastructure. And last year, Canada’s last fully intact sea-ice shelf collapsed, losing more than 40 per cent of its area in two days.
“These toxins, a by-product of industry and pesticides, were showing up in our food chain and in our bodies and in our nursing milk” —Siila Watt-Cloutier
Siila Watt-Cloutier is a respected Inuit leader and the author of the bestselling memoir The Right to Be Cold, which was shortlisted for Canada Reads in 2017. In this episode, No Little Plans host Tokunbo Adegbuyi speaks to Watt-Cloutier about why we need to look at the Arctic’s past to create a path toward a sustainable future. She describes her early life in a former Hudson’s Bay trading post in Kuujjuaq. “[It was a] very traditional way of life, travelling only by dog team for the first 10 years. We were hunting and fishing and gathering,” she says.
Environmental changes in the south have long affected the ecosystem in Canada’s Arctic. In the 1970s and ’80s, animals like seal, caribou and Arctic char were ingesting high levels of persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, commonly used in pesticides. Because Inuit rely on these animals for sustenance, the same toxins were showing up in their bodies and nursing milk. As chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council—which now represents some 180,000 Inuit in Canada, the U.S., Greenland and Russia—Watt-Cloutier was able to negotiate at five UN conventions. These led to the signing of the Stockholm Convention in 2001, an agreement that restricted the use of POPs in pesticides. “This issue was a daunting task because it was a chemical story and environmental story. For us, it was first and foremost a health story….a human issue,” she says. “And so we were able to get people to see it from that perspective.”
“This isn’t just about polar bears. This is about our families and our children who we’re trying to keep strong so they can embrace life and not take it.” —Siila Watt-Cloutier
In Watt-Cloutier’s book, The Right to Be Cold, she describes how the traditional Inuit way of life gave way to modernity in a single generation. In the mid-20th century, the government encroached on Inuit land, forcing communities to resettle and sending children to residential schools. “It was about trying to get us off the land and into communities so that [they could have] better control over our lives,” she says.
This was the first time their access to transportation and hunting was curtailed. Siila describes the killing of Qimmit, or Inuit sled dogs, by the RCMP and other government officials, known as the “dog slaughter.” This was all revealed in the early 2000s, when 350 Inuit who survived the traumas of the 1950s and ’60s testified before the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. As a child, Watt-Cloutier herself spent several years in residential school in southern Canada. “When I arrived home after five years for Christmas, the dogs were gone and in their place were these noisy machines,” she says, referring to the trucks and snowmobiles that replaced the sled dogs. “I was quite terrified of them, to be honest.”
Generations after the calamities that transformed their way of life, Watt-Cloutier says, Inuit are now experiencing a new seismic threat in the form of climate change. “It’s because we are a people who still depend upon the healthiness of our climate and our environment for our food sources and for teaching our young people the remarkable life skills out on the land,” she says.
“We have to go back to the basics and reconnect. Indigenous wisdom is the medicine we seek in healing our planet.” —Siila Watt Cloutier
Toward the end of the interview, Adegbuyi and Watt-Cloutier discuss the power of traditional Inuit knowledge in the battle against climate change. Watt-Cloutier describes, for example, what young Inuit learn from hunting: “As a young person, you’re waiting for the animals to surface and the winds to die and the snow to fall and the ice to form—you’re being taught patience. You’re being taught insurance and courage, and how to be bold under pressure, how to build resiliency in your coping skills,” she says. “And you’re ultimately developing your sound judgment and your wisdom. And wisdom is the hallmark of Inuit teachings and culture.”
One way to combat climate change, she suggests, is building conservation economies, in which the community gets the jobs and resources they need to invest in the environment and build local wealth. “There would be no disconnect between their culture and the way in which they would work every day—and they’d be paid for it,” she explains. Watt-Cloutier points to a recent agreement negotiated by P.J. Akeeagok, leader of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, to protect more than 427,000 square kilometres on Baffin Island—a deal that will help preserve the area’s sea ice, waters and marine mammal populations. Not only will this kind of Indigenous-led conservation help protect Arctic ecosystems, but it will also give Inuit agency over their land and livelihood. “In terms of our economies, we’re not just victims of globalization, nor do we wish to be,” Watt-Cloutier says. “We want to be at the same tables—equal tables with those who are trying to negotiate a new world order of doing things differently.”
No Little Plans is hosted by Tokunbo Adegbuyi and produced by Vocal Fry Studios. This podcast was created by Strategic Content Labs for Community Foundations of Canada. Subscribe or listen to us via the outlets above, and follow us at @nolittlepodcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Host: Tokunbo Adegbuyi
Producer: Ellen Payne Smith
Associate Producer: Sabrina Brathwaite
Executive Producer: Katie Jensen
Music: L CON