Toward a greener world: A Q&A with Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Nobel Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier—delivering a keynote speech to The ONE conference on September 18—shares her advice, as an Inuit leader and environmental activist, on how to build a more sustainable economy.

We live in an ever-connected world—which has been a force for good for many, but also presents profound challenges to our global environment and traditional ways of life. In her address to The ONE conference, on September 18, 2017, in Ottawa, environmental activist, author and Nobel Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier discusses how globalization has threatened her Inuit people—and lays out a path forward toward a more sustainable future. CPA Canada got a preview of her talk in mid-August.

Two key themes at The ONE conference are “sustainability” and “globalization.” Do you think the two ideas are compatible—can we move toward a more globalized world, and economy, and still be sustainable?

Well, I don’t think there’s any choice in the matter, really, because we are connected now and there are remarkable mutual relationships that have been developed in the business world. And many are working. But I think it’s a matter of finding the right ways in which to create sustainable development together. It’s really about what kind of businesses are we going to create now, knowing that what we have been putting all our efforts into are not good for the planet. So, I think if we can rethink the kind of businesses—in other words, more eco-friendly businesses—then, yes, indeed we can.

One of the global efforts to find common-cause on sustainability—the Paris Climate Accord—is at risk, thanks to the United States pulling out. Britain is also negotiating to pull out of the EU, which has also tried to push for common solutions to environmental challenges. Why do you think there is a retreat from global co-operation these days?

I think the majority of people are still buying into the Paris Accord, so I’m not too concerned. The United States—yes, it’s a huge player in the global community, there’s no doubt, but it’s not the only country that can lead on these fronts. What a golden opportunity this can be for Canada to start to lead. We don’t hear enough about this in the media, but even countries like China—who are major polluters because of their coal industry—are starting to take the lead on so many fronts, with electric cars and many other things that they’re trying to do. So if they can step up to the plate, if India can do the same, then I think there is still reason for optimism.

You’ve spoken and written at length on the connection between climate change and human rights, specifically as it relates to the Inuit people. When and how did you first realize the significance of this connection?

We have known for many, many years—because it’s not just climate change that has impacted the way of life and our food chain in the past, but the toxins that ended up making their way into our food chain and poisoning our bodies and the nursing milk of our mothers in the 1980s. It was a huge wake-up call to the world that everything was interconnected. I worked on those issues long before I started to really focus on climate change—and nowhere else in the world do the issues of toxins in our food and climate change so parallel each other than in the Arctic. It’s not like one day it became a revelation—we’ve always known it—but there was this momentum building. At the same time, there was movement in the United States with environmental legal teams that were starting to make this linkage, the legal impacts of climate change and human rights. These legal teams had heard about my work on the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) treaty, where 100 countries agreed to ban the substances that were poisoning our food chain. They reached out and said, “Listen, can we talk about launching a legal petition targeting the United States for their inaction on connecting the seriousness of climate change?”

You served for several years as the international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing Inuit in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. What did that experience—working across borders to find common causes—teach you?

The ICC was created back in 1976 by an Alaskan (Eben Hopson), who at the time was dealing with oil spills along the coast of Alaska. There are very few Inuit—we’re still only at 165,000 in the entire world—and so he felt that we had to come together and create an umbrella organization if we wanted to be more “voiceful” and be heard above the fray. The experience taught me a lot. It was a remarkable vehicle in which to learn about how the world thinks and works. It gave me that bird’s eye view, which has really helped me to understand the daunting task that we do have—but also the potential of bringing the world together to do the right thing. And I think when we talked about the toxins issue, the POP treaty, it really brought that human face to many people. It’s always all about ice, or polar bears, wherever you go in the world, at these conferences. You hardly ever saw the human dimension to these issues.

You’ve been critical about the extractive industries—mining, oil and gas—and their impact on the North. What do you see as a viable alternative for northern development—ones that respect aboriginal communities?

We haven’t even started to tap into the remarkable ingenuity of what we can offer, which are what I call culture match—meaning something that we know about in terms of our culture and something that we know would protect and not destroy a way of life and our land and our environment up here. You’re already starting to see that with some of the younger generation in terms of the filmmaking that’s going on now, the performing arts, the jewelry-making, and designing beautiful products. They’re sustainable. They’re eco-friendly. I hope that someday I can sit down and start to try to flesh out more ideas based on the principles and values that I started to write about in my book. The potential is there, but we do have to deal with the social and health indicators, first and foremost.


What are your thoughts on the connection between globalization, climate change and human rights? Post a comment below.


The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the subject and do not necessarily reflect those of CPA Canada.

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CPA Canada