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A major theme of The Right to Be Cold is how climate change poses an existential threat to cultures that are embedded in ice and snow.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet
Sheila Watt-Cloutier
Allen Lane
336 pages

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is one of the most widely respected political figures to emerge from Canada's Arctic, and this potential was identified early on. When she was just 10 years old, she and her friend Lizzie were selected as promising future Inuit leaders and sent to live with a white family in the tiny coastal community of Blanche, N.S. Having grown up in Nunavik, Que., on dog sleds and in canoes, the young Watt-Cloutier loved new experiences and approached the long voyage south in the spirit of adventure.

The girls were in for what Watt-Cloutier now describes as a "brutal shock."

They were assigned to the home of a family named Ross, headed by a man with a nasty temper. Watt-Cloutier missed her family terribly and longed to return to her "Arctic childhood of ice and snow." Raised on seal and whale meat, she pined for "country food," as Northern game is known, and found the fresh peas and "tumblers full" of cow's milk at the Rosses' to be "revolting."

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Sheila and Lizzie dutifully dressed in prim outfits and completed their schoolwork – but they also expressed their intense homesickness in "anguished letters" to family. The ones Lizzie wrote to her sister simply said: "I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home."

In one of the most unsettling passages in The Right to Be Cold, Watt-Cloutier describes discovering all of these intimate expressions "opened and spread out on the dining-room table." They would not be sent, the girls were informed, and from now on, all of their letters would be vetted by the Rosses.

The impact of this early violation of privacy was profound. "It took me a long, long time after that experience to feel comfortable or even able to express myself, my thoughts and my feelings. In one simple act, the Rosses helped to weaken my voice for years to come."

The loss, suppression and ultimate rediscovery of voice are themes that run through this courageous and revelatory memoir, which spans from Watt-Cloutier's earliest childhood at communal feasts in Old Fort Chimo; to go-go dancing at a residential school in Churchill, Man.; to rising within the ranks of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the non-governmental body representing the interests of Inuit people living in four Arctic nations; to eventually becoming such a powerful advocate for Inuit rights at United Nations climate-change negotiations that she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

In the book's early political chapters, describing Watt-Cloutier's first bureaucratic posts, the author seems to be holding back, as if some invisible judge is still vetting and censoring her words. Conflicts within institutions like the Kativik School Board are referenced; yet, their substance remains obscure. She writes, for instance, that she decided to leave the board and sent a memo stating "that I did not want my Inuk voice to be silenced any longer." But having shared no details about how she was being silenced and why, I found myself wondering whether the silencing was ongoing.

As the memoir progresses, however, with Watt-Cloutier taking on ever more prominent international roles, the early vagueness drops away. It is in these gripping chapters that Watt-Cloutier starts naming names in high places, giving readers an inside view of the backroom negotiations that profoundly shaped the international climate-change consensus.

As the title of the book suggests, a major theme of The Right to Be Cold is how climate change poses an existential threat to cultures that are embedded in ice and snow. If the ice disappears, or if it behaves radically differently, then cultural knowledge that has been passed on from one generation to the next loses its meaning. Young people are deprived of the lived experience on the ice that they need to become knowledge carriers, while the animals around which so many cultural practices revolve disappear. As Watt-Cloutier has been arguing for well over a decade now, that means that the failure of the world to act to reduce its emissions to prevent that outcome constitutes a grave human-rights violation.

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This argument shares much in common with legal cases lodged by several First Nations against highly polluting resource development: If the water is poisoned and the animals are sick, our courts have been told, then legally protected rights to hunt and fish are being violated. Watt-Cloutier's innovation was extending this argument, which had previously focused on site-specific mines and dams, to the planetary-scale crisis of climate change. With the help of a team of legal advisers and backed by a long list of Inuit elders, she submitted a landmark petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights arguing that, by failing to prevent climate change, the United States was violating Inuit human rights.

Part of what makes this book so illuminating is that it insists on being more than a manifesto. In weaving politics with her own life story, themes emerge that challenge the tendency to treat climate change as some new and singular threat. In Watt-Cloutier's narrative, just as dog sleds have been replaced by snow machines, so the emissions from the entire fossil-fuel-driven global economy are threatening the survival of her culture. And just as pollutants from industrial activities have ended up in the flesh and fat of the animals Inuit people rely on for food, so these same industrial activities are causing global temperatures to rise, threatening the continued existence of these same animals. Climate change, in other words, is nothing new – it is the ultimate expression of the same threats that have been ravaging this part of the world for a very long time.

Inuit culture, however, is far from dead and in fact is thriving despite the odds. That, argues Watt-Cloutier, is very good news, because her people's hard-won knowledge about how to live sustainably on the land "could serve as a model for all nations, compelling the world to make the strong cuts in emissions needed to mitigate climate change."

Yet, this moral leadership is only possible if Arctic politicians resist the temptation to adopt an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude toward fossil-fuel extraction beneath their rapidly melting ice. On this point, Watt-Cloutier leaves no room for ambiguity. After summarizing the devastating impacts of oil and gas extraction on indigenous lands around the world, she demands: "How is it that the extraction industry is going to work better for us? This is one heck of a risky business we're getting into as a means of pulling ourselves out of poverty."

Moreover, if governments in Nunavut and Greenland join the fossil-fuel gold rush, the ability to provide critical climate leadership will disappear. "Just a few years ago, we stood solidly together on high moral ground to defend a way of life," she writes. "Yet our pursuing resource-extraction industries now means that that high ground is fracturing as quickly as the ice is melting."

Months before a major United Nations summit on climate change in Paris, and with low oil prices calling many high-cost forms of extraction (including Arctic drilling) into question, these are fighting words. Clearly, the silenced, homesick girl is gone for good. In her place is a confident and forceful leader, sounding the alarm that unless we change course – and fast – our collective home will become incurably sick.

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Naomi Klein's latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

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