Dramatic environmental change is a human rights issue, says 50+50 speaker

“I am not an alarmist,” Sheila Watt-Cloutier told her audience at the kick-off lecture of York’s 50+50 Symposium Friday. That didn’t stop the activist and former Nobel Prize nominee from describing the devastating impact of pollution and global warming on her fellow Inuit in Canada’s Arctic. Using evocative verbal imagery such as an Inuit hunter falling through thinning ice due to global warming or a mother afraid to breastfeed her children for fear of toxin levels in her body, Watt-Cloutier drove home her message that the best way to accelerate action on the environment is to see it as a human rights issue.

Sheila Watt-CloutierLeft: Sheila Watt-Cloutier speaks at the opening lecture in York’s 50+50 Symposium

“There is a certain disconnect going on here in terms of how we don’t understand we are all one on this planet and that the Arctic is not just some inhospitable place where certain people live and thrive on the ice and snow," she said. "We definitely are all connected.”

Watt-Cloutier has made a career out of challenging people to understand how what is happening to the Arctic is an early warning for the rest of the world. She is the former International Chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and regularly speaks to government and non-governmental agencies about the effects of climate change on the Inuit of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

In 2005 she and a team of Inuit lawyers and two US environmental law firms petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. “This was not of anger, we were reaching out and I have always said this was a gift…from an ancient culture, from our hunters to an urban setting that had largely lost its connection to the natural environment.” That petition has so far been denied but, Watt-Cloutier said, “I am very persistent”.

Although some saw the petition’s failure as a loss, Watt-Cloutier said it paid off in increased visibility for the plight of her people, who face monumental changes to their way of life on a scale and at a speed that is difficult to fathom. Where studies once showed the Arctic could be ice-free by 2040, Watt-Cloutier says, some experts now predict it could happen as soon as 2012. Houses are literally falling into the sea and hunting areas are disappearing along with the species that are hunted for food and clothing. Inuit communities are now having to mount more frequent rescue operations to help hunters who are trapped on ice pans that break and float away.

Jennifre FosterLeft: Moderator Professor Jennifer Foster of York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies

More importantly, said Watt-Cloutier, global warming is changing the way Inuit elders pass on to young people traditional teachings that are central to Inuit culture and values. The loss of that connection to the past, she argued, is at the root of problems among her people such as substance abuse and suicide. “The actual process of the hunt is more about character building for our young people,” she said. “When you are waiting for the animals to show…you are automatically taught to be patient. You are taught to have courage at the right time…and judgement. If you didn’t have those skills, you’d be dead within two hours.”

The loss of these integrated teachings, said Watt-Cloutier who also has a background as an education counsellor, has caused a disconnect in young people that undermines their survival skills in both the Arctic and the urban society. She noted that young people who retain knowledge of traditional ways are generally more successful. “It is those kids who are connected to our culture who are making it in the outside world.”

Watt-Cloutier’s advocacy has given her and the Inuit a voice at many international conferences but, she says, Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto accord was a disappointing setback. “We have to take the moral lead again,” she said, referring to US President Barack Obama and upcoming talks in Copenhagen. They are aimed at replacing the Kyoto protocol with a new framework for agreement on action to reverse global warming. “Here we are heading into Copenhagen and we’re still not that much further ahead…on greenhouse gas emissions.”

The strategy of trying to reframe the debate has been effective, Watt-Cloutier said, noting that the United Nations Human Rights Council has recognized climate change as a human rights issue for all indigenous peoples.

In the question period following the presentation, Watt-Cloutier was asked how non-natives and city dwellers could reconnect with their traditional values. “There are ways,” she said. “You’re not that far from nature in the city.” The key, she said, was to give young people challenges during their developmental years so they can learn how to survive and be well grounded. “Video games are a replacement challenge,” she said, noting that young people learn more than hand-eye coordination when they play the games. But the key, she said, is “if have a connection to your culture and a good grounding, you can be a strong person.”