As a fellow introvert I find Sheila Watt-Cloutier incredible, going from interpreter/nurse at the Ungava Hospital to International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, among other things. Here’s someone who won’t need Tara Moss’s book Speaking Out as she has already been speaking out for decades via various platforms, successfully raising awareness of Inuit and global issues (and as she points out, the two are interlinked). Hers is a voice we need to hear more of.
So who are the Inuit?
The Inuit people are spread over four countries — Greenland, Canada, Alaska (US), and Siberian Russia. They total 165,000 all at the top of the world, most very far away from each other (not helped by the current airline routes). The same language is spoken with different dialects, the same food is eaten, the same legends, the same hunting practices, the same songs. The same people.
Watt-Cloutier spent her first ten years in the Arctic in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, which is located in Northern Quebec (Canada). She grew up in a very close knit family, raised by her mother and grandmother, travelling by dog-sled, and maintaining a close connection to the local environment and community. After leaving for school age ten and returning almost a decade later, the stark changes wrought in those few years propelled her onto a more political platform.
I felt a sense of responsibility to write the book from a personal narrative, through the experiences of those graphic changes, because I can still remember those more traditional times. It wasn’t generations ago, it was in my lifetime, things have changed very rapidly. I wrote it from a place of trying to connect all these pieces of how we had come from such a powerful, independent culture, strong and valuable, to the addiction, violence and abuse problems we deal with today. I wanted to put into context these wounds, to piece together what has happened in our family systems, societies, and communities.
The disappearance of the dog teams
It wasn’t until I was an adult starting to work in politics that stories began to come out. It was such a shameful time, the wounds were so deep that the men in our communities didn’t talk about that era. There was a time in history when the authorities of the day decided (supposedly for health and safety reasons) to remove the dogs. Thousands were shot and killed, families would come in from outpost camps to barter only to have their dogs shot and therefore their transport removed… It was a great trauma.
How did this affect the Inuit communities?
The dog slaughters and the demolition of the sealing industry changed the way hunters could provide for their families. They began to turn to rifles, ammunition, and motorised boats rather than traditional hunting practices, but the loss of the cultural tradition of hunting plus the degradation of the ice through climate change have caused a lot of damage to their sense of worthiness, integrity, identity.
Traditionally Inuit hunters are calm, reflective, inclusive, wise people. While Western impressions of hunters are often as aggressive men with rifles, hunting in the Arctic leaves no room for anger; any foolish decisions place yourself and your family in jeopardy in such a harsh environment. By losing that identity as proficient provider the hunters have begun to act out, passing their hurt on to women and children through violence. To circumvent that cycle of abuse Watt-Cloutier feels it is important to reclaim and understand their history. By reconnecting with their culture and past hopefully some will regain a sense of place in the community.
If I could just help one person alleviate part of the burden that they carry, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do.
I haven’t really delved into the more environmental part of the talk because there was a lot of information packed into that one-hour session, but I highly recommending reading her book The Right to be Cold to learn more about how we can make this a better planet for everyone, not just the polar bears.