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Sheila (Siila) Watt-Cloutier was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her environmental and political advocacy work, particularly on the effects of climate change on the Inuit people.Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Sheila (Siila) Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk from Kuujjuaq, Que., is a human-rights, Indigenous-rights and cultural-preservation advocate, former politician, writer and educator. After beginning her career in the field of education, Ms. Watt-Cloutier eventually entered politics and was elected as the Canadian president for the Inuit Circumpolar Council in 1995. She held this role for seven years until she became the international chair of the ICC, representing the 155,000 Inuit from Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia. In 2007, Ms. Watt-Cloutier was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental and political advocacy work, particularly on the effects of climate change on the Inuit people. She is also the author of a memoir, The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet.

What does being Inuk mean to you?

I was raised very traditionally. Inuttitut is my first language, I travelled only by dog team for the first 10 years of my life, and I grew up hunting and fishing with my family on the land and frozen waterways. Even though we didn’t always have a lot, we felt very rich in terms of our culture and our bond with each other in our community and with our food and our way of life. For me, that is what it means to be an Inuk. It’s not just my story, it’s a collective story.

How can traditional knowledge be leveraged as a tool for empowerment and healing?

Being Indigenous is firmly grounded in the land that you are born into, as well as the traditional language and knowledge that goes along with that land. With that, the Indigenous world has much to offer in terms of teaching. The character-building skills that are taught through traditional activities on the land are just as important as the technical aspects, if not more so. I always say that when you’re out there hunting and fishing, it’s much more than just waiting for the animals to surface on the ice, for the ice to form, and for the winds to die. A day out on the land can teach you that food is medicine; it can help to pass on the traditions of your people; it can strengthen your sense of identity; it can promote belonging through sharing with family and community; and it can build character skills like patience, determination, confidence, resiliency and focus. All of these things are grounded in traditional knowledge and are extremely important to the well-being of our people: physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

In your experience, how are the lives of Indigenous peoples in the North affected by climate change?

Identity, land, climate change and economics are interconnected and interdependent on one another. So when that becomes precarious as a result of climatic changes and the warming that’s happening, it’s really not just about the polar bears. It’s about the community healing and moving beyond historical traumas that is trying to continue to survive and thrive on that ice and that land in order to be able to continue to maintain a powerful holistic way of life. The challenges and changes are huge, no doubt about it.

Oftentimes when climatic changes are happening, people down South can think of wearing shorts in October as a positive thing, without realizing that there’s a very troubling situation happening in the big picture. For us in the Arctic, we depend on the ice, the snow and on the cold, not just to survive, but also to thrive. When it is the coldest time of the year, the animals’ fur is at their best and we can make our clothing. When the ice is thick in the dead of winter, we can travel and hunt and feed our families highly nutritional food from the local land and waters.

But now, due to climate change, there are homes that are falling into the sea, particularly in the western part of our circumpolar world because of permafrost melt; our community runways are often buckling and needing to be repaved; there are new species of insects, birds and fish that have come up that we don’t even have names for yet. It also affects our economy and our cost of living as well. Looking at something as simple as eating, it costs a lot more when you have to reroute yourself to the same places that you grew up hunting and fishing because of the changes to the routes. Now, when you have to reroute yourself, you have to take more fuel, and you’ve got to take more rations with you. So even the simple tasks show the stark shift in our everyday economic realities. With the cost of living being already much higher than the South, these changes add to an already challenging way of life in the North.

From your experience, what is your advice on tackling the issue of climate change?

The good fight that I’ve been part of for a number of years now is to reframe the terms of the debate regarding environmental degradation, resource development and climate change in the Arctic, in particular. It’s important to recognize how closely linked environment, health, economics, culture and rights are in our society. The Earth is a living, breathing entity just the same as our bodies are. Our survival utterly depends on living in nature, not apart from it. In addressing climate change, we need to move away from focusing solely on the language of economics, which further adds to the destruction of our atmosphere, our land, our waters and wildlife, and we need to emphasize and consider the impact on human life and rights as well. Climate change is very much about the moral and ethical imperative.

How can we collectively move toward reconciliation?

Unfortunately, we live in a reality where many First Nations communities don’t have clean drinking water, not for a month or a year, but for decades. Across the country, Indigenous women have gone or are going missing without any explanation. In the North, housing infrastructure is so dire that you would be shocked at the conditions many people are living in. What is that about? It’s about othering Indigenous peoples as though we are not as human.

Moving forward, it isn’t Indigenous peoples’ sole responsibility to teach everybody about what’s happening and to try to get people’s attitudes to change. It’s everybody’s responsibility. We have to stop othering each other and start learning from one another. We all need to learn more about Indigenous knowledge, values and principles and how they can be replicated in dialogues and decision-making, whether it’s at a regional, national or international levels. Looking ahead, we need to reimagine and start to build our collective future with respect and reverence for the Indigenous world, rather than merely replicating the values of a dominant Western society all over again.

What does leadership mean to you?

I often say that it’s not about what we want, but how life’s purposes find you. Working from a principled and ethical place within oneself, it is to model authentically and genuinely for others, a sense of calm, a sense of clarity and focus. Leadership is to always check inwards to ensure one is leading from a position of strength, not fear or victimhood. A leader does not project one’s own limitations onto those you are modelling possibilities for. To me, leadership means never to lose sight of the fact that the issues at hand are much bigger than oneself.

Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:

For Senator Murray Sinclair, leadership is defined by humility

Trust is the foundation of leadership, says Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation

We must prioritize economic reconciliation, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business CEO Tabatha Bull says

For Tracy Bear, leadership begins with accountability, service and connection to the land

For APTN chief executive Monika Ille, leadership means honouring her Nation’s history

Pause, think, listen: National Bank Financial’s Sean St. John on using Indigenous approaches to leadership

About the series

Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.

Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and he has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.

Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is completing her master’s degree in educational leadership at McGill. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has completed graduate work at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is a consultant in education, leadership and Indigenization for organizations and schools, and has previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women association and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’kehá:ka woman from the community of Kahnawà:ke.

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