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The Right To Be Cold by Sheila-Watt Cloutier

One woman's story of protecting her culture, the arctic and the whole planet.

The Right To Be Cold is a memoir about Sheila-Watt Cloutier's early life in the Arctic and her fight against climate change as an adult. At a young age she and her friend Lizzie were taken from their Inuit family in New Fort Chimo, to live in Nova Scotia with Joseph and Peggy Ross. The journey south was traumatic, and as Sheila-Watt Cloultier puts it, foretelling of the struggles soon to come. 

When they arrived in Blanche, Sheila-Watt Cloutier was bedridden for the next three days, unable to eat. The Rosses felt that the faster the girls adapted to southern ways, the better it would be for them. Their diet was an important part of this adjustment, and it was the first in a long line of adjustments that they would have to make in order to survive this new journey. 

Ten years old, and very naive about what it really meant to be away from her mother, grandmother and community, she was as she puts it, "in for a brutal shock". 

The community was both isolated and isolating, with only five other families in the coastal town. What was even more difficult to deal with than the diet and routines, were the family dynamics. Then there was the censorship of the letters the girls sent home. The effects of the censorship were profound and everything just made them desperately homesick. 

But complaining about their life with the Rosses, just got them shipped off to Churchhill Vocational Centre, where numbered underwear and bunker beds became the norm in a dormitory that previously had been army barracks. The federal government had tailor-made the vocational program for Inuit students from northern Quebec and Northwest Territories. 

"We were being deprogrammed from our Inuit culture and reprogrammed for the southern world." 

Sheila-Watt Cloutier's book touches the nerve. It may seem that there is a constant theme of loss, but eventually there is also one of rediscovery and hope. Sheila-Watt Cloutier's has devoted her entire life to "protecting what is threatened and nurturing what has been wounded. In this culmination of Watt-Cloutier's regional, national, and international work over the last twenty-five years, The Right to Be Cold explores the parallels between safeguarding the Arctic and the survival of Inuit culture, of which her own background is such an extraordinary example." 

While it was both enlightening and revealing to learn about the intricate details of the forced assimilation imposed on Inuit children, the rest of Sheila-Watt Cloutier's journey in becoming one of the most influential and decorated environmental, cultural, and human rights advocate in the world, is all the more inspiring -- and a departure from the cultural genocide narrative that has come to the fore in CanLit.

In the language of the Inuktitut, there are myriad subtle ways in describing the ice, the snow, and the environment that are part and parcel of the Inuit way of life -- a life that they have knew for millennia prior to Western colonization yet with the steady drumbeat of industrialization, material culture, and human activity in the Anthropocene, all of this is changing rapidly. The change in climate evokes a change in the way of life, and by extension an erosion of a culture that has been brutalized yet still clings to life. 

Sheila-Watt has articulated the case for action against the climate change that native cultures have been seeing for the past generation. Those that live in tandem with and are closest to the land and nature are the proverbial canary in the coal mine; they remind us that the world must act now in order to stave off significant environmental changes years from now. 

Sheila-Watt Cloutier makes an impassioned case for not only her culture but also for humanity at large and the planet we share in The Right To Be Cold. In reading this book, I was reminded of an enviromental advocate of an earlier generation (Terence McKenna) "Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to the commitment by removing impossible obstacles."  Will we listen to Sheila-Watt Cloutier's clarion call for change? 


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