News / Edmonton

Fighting for the right to be cold: Sheila Watt-Cloutier on Climate change

International climate change activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier on the fate of the Arctic and why the rest of us should take note.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was in town for the University of Alberta's International Week.

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was in town for the University of Alberta's International Week.

As Edmonton enjoyed unseasonably balmy weather Wednesday, climate change and human rights activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier arrived to argue for the right to be cold.

Originally from Nunavik, in northern Quebec, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee argues the fate of the Arctic will have major ramifications for the rest of the planet. She was in town as a keynote speaker for the University of Alberta’s International Week.

Q: Why is the right to be cold so important to Inuit communities?

A: It’s so important in the sense in that it’s important to us, as it relates to the rest of the world. There’s always that connection. The hunting culture of Inuit is based on the ice, the snow and the cold. All living things thrive better in the cold because that’s how it is in the arctic, right? The right to be cold is connected to our right to our health, to our environment, to educate our children, to safety, our right to mobility. All of those rights are really important to us.

The right to be cold in the Arctic is really connected to maintaining the ice, which is the cooling system for the planet. It’s the stabilizer. When that starts to change, then it impacts all of the weather patterns around the globe. That’s an important piece for people to understand.

Q: What are the ramifications for a winter city like Edmonton?

A: Somebody was talking to me about the city when it rains. When it snows, the infrastructure can deal with that, with snowplows and so on. But you don’t have the means to deal with slush, for example, and how it turns immediately to ice. Those are the signs and signals that climate change is signalling to cities that they’re often not prepared to deal with these unpredictable situations. Climate change is making things very unpredictable. We’ll get rain in the winter in the Arctic now. These situations are very difficult for human beings, but think about what the melting of snow and the formation of ice does to wildlife? When the caribou are no longer able to break through and reach the lichen? And then the calves are born not as healthy. All of these things are happening.

Q: What is the most striking change you’ve seen as a result of climate change?

A: For me, it’s about the ice formation that comes later in the fall and breaks up earlier in the spring. There are times when rain falling in the middle of winter. The coastal erosion in the western part of our country, or in Alaska, where those situations are much more dire. There are three communities where some of their homes have already fallen into the sea because of coastal erosion. Who will relocate these communities? And who will cover the bill? We’re coastal people, this would change our culture.

Q: Alberta’s in an interesting position in that we’re affected by climate change but also dependant on an industry that contributes to it. How do you balance that?

A: It isn’t just about what the industry can do to make changes in their daily lives. We need larger scale to make a difference for greenhouse gases lowering. And larger scale means industry. It means government policy. It means a change in the way business is done. It will be interesting times to see what the province and the federal government will do with a climate change program. I don’t have the answers to that, except to say, we must continue to find solutions to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: When you look at climate change policies, are you optimistic?

A: I am. I am because there are indicators out there of that things shifted in the last election. There is a shift in the political language, in the style with which politicians are speaking about these issues. There’s a shift in how they’re actually naming they’re departments. ‘Climate change’ being added to department of environment at the federal level. Watching the politicians talk, let’s hope that their rhetoric will mean concrete action. I think the last election as an election of hope and change towards these things that we’re challenged with.

Q: You talk about the links between colonialism and climate change. Edmonton’s been talking a lot about reconciliation this year. Is this a part of it?  

A: The Truth and Reconciliation report that really addressed all of the traumas that were taken against First Nation, Metis and Inuit children and how that legacy impacts us today is really connected to the sacredness of our land and our culture. It’s connected. All of that was stripped away, by many government policies in the past, so you can’t separate all of these issues of reconciling, with what is going to help heal that history. And a lot of it for me is a connection back to our way of life, which is a powerful way of life. Based on principles and values, which includes respect for the environment.




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