How Inuit advocate Siila Watt-Cloutier has been making climate change a human rights issue.
Meet the 2022 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient
We are honouring Siila Watt-Cloutier with the 2022 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Ricoh Canada, for her outstanding contributions as an environmental, cultural, and human rights advocate. Born in a small village in Northern Quebec, she entered the residential school system when she was 12 — which ignited her desire to help others and be of service to her community. She began her career in the Nunavik education system, and eventually became a voice for Inuit rights on the global stage, shining a spotlight on the ramifications of climate change on communities.
By Sarah Kelsey | Illustration by Tess Goris @tessalexandra.art
“There is always reason to hope,” Siila Watt-Cloutier says, when asked about the current state of the world. “The pandemic is teaching us to do things differently — that’s positive.”
As an Inuit leader and one of the world’s most recognized environmental and human rights advocates, Siila has spent her career shining a spotlight on the ramifications of global climate change on communities, especially for Indigenous Peoples. She’s encouraged leaders and individuals to evaluate how their policies and actions have impacted their citizens. She says the COVID-19 pandemic has given everyone the reality check needed to realize the way we do things — whether in business or culturally — needs to change.
“The pandemic is opening hearts and souls to find solutions to address climate change; it has exposed the unresolved issues of racism in the Indigenous and Black communities,” says Siila. “We’re in a space where we need to address these issues as we’re all connected. Change is coming, and there is hope in that.”
The path to Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.
Siila, pronounced see-la in Inuktitut and she-la in English, was born in Kuujjuaq, Northern Quebec, an old Hudson’s Bay outpost formerly known as Old Fort Chimo, and was raised by her mother and grandmother, two “remarkable women who overcame incredible challenges to care for and feed their families.”
Until she was 10, she lived a traditional Inuit way of life, travelling by dogsled and learning the importance of community, culture, and respect for nature from her elders. She was then sent away to various places by the Canadian government, landing first in Nova Scotia with a family when she was 10, then Churchill, Manitoba at a residential school at the age of twelve, and then Ottawa for high school.
It was around this time that Siila began to feel a pull toward helping people. “The government-run residential school system was hard and we were 200 Inuit kids together,” she says. “I had to become a model of survival, so I drew my strength from what I learned from my grandmother and mother. I wanted to help others and be of service to my community.”
Not one for mathematics or science, and more of an introvert than an extrovert, she moved back to her hometown when she was 18 and began a career in education, first in Kuujjuaq’s healthcare centres as an interpreter and later at the Kativik School Board, an institution that administers education to 14 Nunavik communities in Quebec and that incorporates Inuit culture, language, and values.
“When I returned to Quebec, I began to witness first-hand the dramatic changes that were happening within Inuit communities, the addictions that had started to set in and the breakdown of traditions,” Siila says. “There was so much going on and so many issues that weren’t being dealt with, especially for our youth.”
She had never wanted to get into politics, seeing it as more her brother’s arena (Charlie Watt, a former Canadian Senator from Nunavik who spent 34 years in office) — “but I realized if I put myself in a leadership role, I could help.”
“I had to become a model of survival, so I drew my strength from what I learned from my grandmother and mother. I wanted to be of service to my community.”
She began to look for opportunities to leverage her knowledge of the educational systems in Quebec on a larger scale, which led to her work as the Inuk advisor to the Nunavik Education Task Force. It was there that she and her colleagues produced a document with 101 recommendations for change called “The Pathway to Wisdom.” When she got elected to the Makivik Corporation in 1995, she focused on how she could help guide the youth, producing a video called “Capturing Spirit: The Inuit Journey.” Both highlighted the extraordinarily rapid decline of Inuit Society and the weaknesses of the educational systems in Inuit communities to support youth and individuals through such tumultuous changes.
It was that work which eventually led her to move beyond regional politics, and got her elected to lead the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a body that represents approximately 165,000 Inuit in the Arctic, predominantly located in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia. After 7 years in the role, she was elected Chair of the ICC, leading all four countries for four years. Her former role with Makivik had put her in a position to advocate for Inuit rights on a regional and national level, while the ICC role made her “the defender and protector” of those rights internationally.
“It was almost overnight that I became the spokesperson for the Inuit around the world,” Siila says, and it wasn’t just issues of education she was dealing with. “I entered the organizations at a time when much work and research was being done about the health impact of pollutants and toxins on the communities. These pollutants, carried though weather patterns from afar, were contaminating the Arctic food chain and accumulating in the bodies and nursing milk of our Inuit mothers. Climate change was also impacting an individual’s ability to safely hunt.”
Strengthened by what she calls her “maternal instinct to protect what I love,” Siila gave a voice to this issue on the global stage and went on to play a critical role in the United Nations negotiations that banned the use of Persistent Organic Pollutants (commonly known as POPs, like PCP and DTT). In 2007, while ICC Chair, she launched the first legal action linking climate change to human rights, particularly in the context of the Inuit. Her book on the subject entitled The Right to be Cold (translated into French, Le Droit au Froid) is internationally renowned.
Today, Siila is considered one of the world’s greatest advocates for the rights of the Inuit of the Arctic. For her work, she has won and been nominated for dozens of awards, including a nomination for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Al Gore. She became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006, received the Right to Livelihood Award in 2015, and has been recognized as a Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme. Siila has also received many honorary doctorates from universities in Canada and one from the USA.
A leader to learn from.
How does someone who never wanted a career in politics or on the international stage cope with stepping into the limelight?
“I had some remarkable in-person help in the absence of being able to be close to my elders. I was also able to draw on the strength I had to develop as a child,” she says. “I’ve had to do a lot of healing. I had to get to a place that enabled me to honour the fact I was put in the places I had been, so I could learn to thrive.”
As an introvert, Siila gives herself time to prepare for big events and some space to recover from them when they’re over. (For any introverts interested, Siila recommends the book Quiet by Susan Cain.)
She says it’s vital for leaders, regardless of their industry or their day-to-day schedules, to discern what their weaknesses and strengths are so they learn how to harness each. Understanding what could trigger an emotional response can help one prepare for a scary yet important task that has to be accomplished. “No one can lead from fear,” she adds.
Perspective is also key. “To me, leadership means never losing sight that the issues at hand are so much bigger than oneself. It’s about clarity, focus, and looking inward to lead with strength. One should never project their own limitations onto others.”
Siila believes that personal transformation is an absolutely critical component to anyone’s growth as a leader.
“To me, leadership means never losing sight that the issues at hand are so much bigger than oneself. It’s about clarity, focus, and looking inward to lead with strength. One should never project their own limitations onto others.”
“I staunchly believe in personal transformation as the way to move forward,” Siila says. “One of my favourite quotes is by Marianne Williamson: ‘Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.’ If we want to create change, we have to look within ourselves.”
It’s also important to remember that growth is continuous. Once you feel like you’ve mastered a task, there will always be something else to overcome. Resilience is key.
“Growth, transformation, it’s an on-going process. I still continue to learn about the challenges that life throws my way. I feel quite blessed that I’ve had a lot of freedom to trust within my own world.”
The way forward.
Before the pandemic hit, Siila says she was busier than ever, travelling the world speaking out on the trifecta of climate change, health, and human rights — largely because leaders and the global citizenry were finally starting to see the connection between the melting ice caps and the disruption of the way we live. Now, however, much of that in-person advocacy has come to a halt because the current focus is on overcoming the pandemic and not saving the environment. Still, Siila presses on, writing articles on the subject, doing webinars, and giving TED Talks.
“My focus now is to continue to humanize climate change. It’s understanding pieces from a human scale and our history and the consequences of our actions that will help us see that trauma, both human and the planet’s, are one in the same… we are one family.”
Siila has also moved into a new space of educating leaders, with a goal of getting them to show up more authentically for their teams, whether they work in politics or business. She’s currently writing a book about heart-centred leadership and gives motivational talks to organizations. Her goal is to help those in a position of power envision a new way forward, one that’s intentional and that leans on the Indigenous wisdom she grew up with
“We’re finding in the Inuit world that the solutions to our problems, to addressing the trauma and the health and social issues, lie very close to home and within ourselves,” she says. “The world that is seeking a better and more sustainable way, the Indigenous belief that we are all connected, it’s the medicine the world seeks. If we can address our problems this way, we can contribute greatly to solutions.”
She adds there has never been a better time to envision and believe in a better, brighter future.
“It’s a time of great pause and a change of great perspectives. A new way of doing things is coming.”