I had the pleasure of speaking with Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier at the 2010 Millenium Summit in Montreal. For a number of years, Watt-Cloutier has been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change on Canada’s Inuit people. She is the former President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Watt-Cloutier has earned the respect and admiration of her peers and colleagues who commend her for her passionate commitment to northern Aboriginal peoples. She has received numerous awards and recognitions for her tireless efforts on behalf of Arctic indigenous peoples around the world, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
In addition to climate change, Watt-Cloutier works to raise awareness about a number of other important environmental issues in the North including sustainable development, education, traditional ecological knowledge and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These toxic, long-lasting contaminants are carbon-based and are by-products of industrial activities that originate in North America, Europe and Asia. Despite originating in the global south, POPs were detected in alarmingly high rates in the breast milk and blood of Inuit mothers in northern Quebec and southern Baffin Island during the mid-1980s. Recent evidence suggests that consuming these contaminated foods has devastating consequences for human health including neurological, endocrinological, and behavioral disorders.
Watt-Cloutier emphasizes that sustainable development is more effectively achieved when projects and policies bring Aboriginal peoples and organizations together to learn from one another. She has urged a bridging of the gap between Western scientific rationalism and the Aboriginal worldview. Watt-Cloutier has recommended that traditional ecological knowledge and other Aboriginal knowledge systems assume a more prominent role in dealing with current issues such as climate change.
In my interview with her, Watt-Cloutier explains how climate change, in changing the consistency of ice and snow in the North, threatens the Inuit way of life and why it should therefore be considered a human rights issue as well as an environmental problem. She also talks about some of the physical and climatological changes that the Inuit have been witnessing in the North recently and she describes what she feels is the best way forward in confronting the climate crisis.
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