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nation builder: environment

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Nation Builder of the Decade, EnvironmentCHRIS WINDEYER

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Birthplace : Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, Northern Quebec

Age : 56

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was involved in educational reform before entering active politics about 15 years ago. In 2002, she was voted international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, an international organization representing the interests of Inuit in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland. She has now left active politics, but continues her crusade.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier's case that the fight against climate change is fundamentally a human-rights issue for the Inuit has changed the debate irreversibly.

It is no longer solely about the prognostications of paleoclimatologists, mathematical modelling and abstract, impersonal scientific consensus. Nor is it about the antics and exhortations of politicians and environmental activists. Ms. Watt-Cloutier has succeeded in putting a human face on climate change.

If there is a ground zero for climate change, it is surely the Arctic. Multi-year ice is disappearing, glaciers that once calved at the sea have receded, replaced in summer by cascading melt-water streams. The permafrost is thawing. The change is happening at an astonishing pace. It is less the perilous region of yore than a region in peril.

Little wonder, then, that of all the species on earth it is the polar bear, the great floe-edge hunter, that has become the poster animal for climate change.

In fact, all life in the Arctic will be affected in some way, not least the people who live there, the Inuit. Ms. Watt-Cloutier's fight is a fight, then, for a way of life that has for centuries survived against the odds on the margins of the habitable world.

The British explorer John Ross was in awe in 1830 when he described the Inuit as "a horde so small, and so secluded, occupying so apparently hopeless a country, so barren, so wild, and so repulsive; and yet enjoying the most perfect vigour, the most well-fed health." Ms. Watt-Cloutier's fight is for the Inuit right to be Inuit, at the core of which is the right to be cold.

As the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, she led a coalition of northern indigenous peoples to push for what became the Stockholm Convention, a landmark treaty adopted in 2001 that bans persistent organic pollutants that poison the Arctic food chain.

From 2002 to 2006 she served as the international chairman of the ICC, representing 155,000 Inuit from Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia. It was under her leadership that a group of Inuit launched the world's first international legal action on climate change, filing a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Her concern is focused on the health and cultural survival of the Inuit, although she argues that the implications go much further: "We are the early warning system for the entire planet."

If Ms. Watt-Cloutier's "small horde" is lost, who is next?

John Geiger is The Globe and Mail's editorial page editor.

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