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“This is about climate trauma”: Sheila Watt-Cloutier on the Arctic

When I hear about the Arctic, the image that comes to mind is a vague, cold, melting block of ice, populated by distressed polar bears. I know, of course, that there are people that live in the North, but shamefully, they’re usually an afterthought to a set of issues that doesn’t get enough thought to begin with.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a climate change activist and self-proclaimed “introvert doing extrovert work” — whose honours include Officer of the Order of Canada, the 2004 United Nations Environment Programme’s Champion of the Earth Award, the Governer General’s Northern Medal, and an honorary degree from the University of Alberta, among others — addressed this prevalent attitude in her talk for International Week, titled “The Right to Be Cold.”

Watt-Cloutier’s talk, and recently released book of the same title, serves to make Canadians and the world take notice of a people who are struggling. The Inuit people of Arctic communities have a colonial history (and present) that, while similar to that of other First Nations in Canada, is separate and distinctive, and presents modern-day challenges that impact the whole world. A history of colonial violence and a dependence on government brought on by factors including the rise and collapse of the fur trade, the exploitation of resources, and the prevention of sealing by the animal rights movement have all led to many of the struggles faced in northern communities today, like loss of culture and staggeringly high suicide rates.

According to Watt-Cloutier, these social and health issues are not separate from the environmental factors melting the Arctic ice, and unless we do something differently, we all stand to lose.

“This isn’t about climate change anymore, this is climate trauma,” said Watt-Cloutier, drawing parallels between the historical trauma that is still very present in Indigenous peoples and the trauma enacted on the land. She talked about the preservation of northern hunting culture, and the life skills learned by a holistic approach to education — a connection to the land that has been severed by imposed educational institutions.

To survive in the harshest climate on earth, northern people need to possess “adaptability, wisdom and ingenuity”, which are all traditionally learned on the ice while hunting and providing. Hunting culture also teaches patience, courage, natural conservationism, and good judgment, which are all necessary to navigate a changing world. In this way, the preservation of traditional northern culture contributes to a connection with the land that is necessary for preserving the Arctic ice, which Watt-Cloutier describes as “the cooling system of the world.”

“The strength of our environment is what will allow us to stand back up,” Watt-Cloutier told the full lecture hall.

The collective feeling in the room was something Watt-Cloutier has felt before, in classes she’s taught in other parts of Canada. First sadness, then anger — often initially misdirected at Watt-Cloutier herself — followed by a deep sense of betrayal. How is this happening right here in Canada? Who is letting this happen? Why is this the first I’m hearing of it? Why aren’t our schools teaching us this?

In the business of creating change, however, there’s little time to dwell on what has gone wrong in the past. It’s important to remember the history, and tell the difficult stories, but with the intention of looking toward the future.

So now that we’ve been made aware of the problem, the question is what can we do about it? Especially for those of us who aren’t from the North, the challenge lies in finding solutions that don’t replicate systems of oppression, or cause more harm than good. The current “solutions” have been band-aid fixes like increasing the police force and number of hospitals in northern communities, without getting at the real roots of the problem.

“(These institutions) seem to be growing with the problem instead of alleviating them,” Watt-Cloutier noted.

The most important is spreading knowledge and awareness. Watt-Cloutier recommends taking a minute to call or write to your MPs, and making it clear how necessary the preservation of Arctic culture and Arctic ice is for our collective futures. She also emphasized the difference between “community-based” research about the north and actually living with and consulting with people through community-placed research in northern communities.

To really solve the health, social, and environmental problems faced in the north, the work we do must raise the level of voices that have gone unheard for too long. An audience member put it best, quoting something he had heard at the COP21 climate talks: “If you drink water and you breathe air, this is about you.”

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