Twenty years ago Sheila Watt-Cloutier feared that the Arctic Council would be just another arena for diplomatic talk with no effect on the ground.
The former International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) was there when the Arctic Council was founded, representing the ICC Canada at the time. Back then, the now 62-year-old Canadian felt that she entered an arena that was very disconnected from what the Council was trying to represent. “In the early days of the Arctic Council I asked myself several times what I was doing there. The arena and the players within were so far away from our world and our understanding of what was important,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier today.
In the beginning her most important job was to try to get the Council to understand that the Arctic is not a frozen desert, but the home of millions of people. “We needed to educate the politicians and the bureaucrats, and in the early days of the Arctic Council, our job as elected officials for our people was to bring in the human dimension to the issues we were dealing with. The gap between the world of the permanent participants and the decision makers was huge.”
In her newly published book The Right to Be Cold, Watt-Cloutier writes in detail about the political work and struggle the indigenous representatives in the Council met in dealing with city-living, high-ranking government officials and different understandings of the Arctic within the eight Arctic Council nations. “Because it is a consensus-based Council, things did not pass or move forward as quickly as I wanted them to. If just one country rejected the proposal, it was enough to stop important processes. It could be very frustrating,” Watt-Cloutier says.
The Arctic Council platform which the Canadian Inuk found very effective from day one was the working committees. She describes them as more manageable and having greater impact, and she emphasizes the work of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) as very important. More than 300 scientists from fifteen countries managed to make the Arctic the face of a world struggling with climate. For the first time western scientists collaborated with indigenous communities on such a big scale, accepting that the wisdom of the hunters and the elders was important to fully understand what was going on in the North.
“But in the beginning also scientists were reluctant to recognize the knowledge of the people who know the lay of the land, the conditions of the ice, and who spot the changes first-hand,” Watt-Cloutier explains. The scientists meant that western science was real and that the indigenous knowledge was only anecdotal – and they thought “how much more can we learn.” “But at the end of that work many of them said they learned so much from the traditional knowledge,” Watt-Cloutier recalls.
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment became both a scientific document and a policy document. “When the United States understood that the ACIA would be a very powerful piece of work, adding pressure for them to change their economic and environmental policy, the US administration tried to change the rules of the game halfway through. They tried to manipulate and stall the process, and it was necessary to play hardball,” says Watt-Cloutier. The United States did not succeed in their efforts, and the ACIA became what the Canadian Inuk today reviews as a key assessment to fully understanding the effects of climate change we are facing.
Her fight for the indigenous peoples’ right to live a traditional, healthy and sustainable life in the Arctic led Sheila Watt-Cloutier to a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 by the Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende. In November 2015 she won the Right Livelihood Award, often called the alternative peace prize, and in her speech in the Swedish Parliament she once again addressed the impact that climate change has on the Arctic way of living. “The ice has now changed so dramatically that the hunters and elders cannot read it like they used to. Our hunting ground is our supermarket, and now we often have problems getting there,” she stated.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier views the 2015 Right Livelihood Award as one of the links connected to the work she started within the Arctic Council in the early days. “But my concern for the future is that many indigenous peoples in the Arctic communities don’t see the link between their lives and the work of the Arctic Council. Many still question if the Arctic Council has any real effect on the ground,” says Watt-Cloutier, yet knowing herself that the many assessments accomplished under the Arctic Council have been very helpful also in the permanent participants’ communities.