Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

On northern Canada's Baffin Island there's a national park, Auyuittuq, whose name means "land that never melts" in the local Inuit language, Inuktitut. This summer, however, the permafrost at Auyuittuq National Park did melt. And that wasn't all. Flash floods ravaged a hamlet nearby. Exceptionally heavy rains washed away the frozen land down to the bedrock, weakening the bridges that linked residents to their reservoir and sewage service. Eventually, park staff were forced to close off sections that were too unstable to pass through.

For Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, events like these demonstrate vividly the true toll of climate change. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on earth, and the changes — from unpredictable ice conditions to new patterns of animal migration — have left its residents reeling. Through it all, nobody has done more than Watt-Cloutier to publicize the upheaval and to champion the rights of those affected.

After a traditional Inuit childhood in northern Quebec and a career in education, Watt-Cloutier turned to politics. In 1995, she was elected to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a cross-border assembly. She played a key role in U.N. negotiations to ban persistent organic pollutants, a class of poisonous chemicals that were building up in Arctic waters. As chair of the ICC from 2002 to 2006, she campaigned relentlessly against climate change — even petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with a claim that the U.S. violated Inuit rights by failing to curb emissions.

Today, Watt-Cloutier, 54, focuses on one goal: putting a human face on climate change. "Most people can't relate to the science, to the economics and to the technical aspects of climate change," she says. "But they can certainly connect to the human aspect." The key, she argues, is to "move the issue from the head to the heart."

Which is why Watt-Cloutier wants the world to know that the stunning Auyuittuq National Park is melting and to understand how this is hurting the Inuit, whose cultural identity is bound up in their interaction with the severe Arctic landscape. That's the argument 
 at the heart of a book she's working on: a rapidly changing 
 planet makes the Inuit 
 hunting lifestyle unsafe, which in turn under-mines Inuit ideals of patience, courage and wisdom. Watt-Cloutier's bold ideas have a way of turning heads; with luck, they will turn hearts as well.