Our Future is Shared: Sheila Watt-Cloutier Presents “Everything is Connected”

June 8, 2021
Valerie Leow, J.D. Candidate, University of Alberta

Congress 2021 blog edition 

The sixth Big Thinking session at Congress, “Everything is Connected: Environment, Economy, Foreign Policy, Sustainability, Human Rights, and Leadership in the 21st Century,” was proud to feature Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a globally renown environmental, cultural, and human rights advocate. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee (2007) for her advocacy work in demonstrating the impact of global climate change, especially in the Arctic, on human rights, Watt-Cloutier is also an Officer of the Order of Canada, and the recipient of the 2004 Aboriginal Achievement Award for Environment, the 2005 United Nations Champion of the Earth Award, the 2005 Norwegian-based Sophie Prize, the 2015 Right Livelihood Award, and the 2020 Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue. In this Big Thinking lecture, Watt-Cloutier asserted that all of the pressing issues of today – matters surrounding the environment, economy, foreign policy, and global health – are deeply interconnected.  

Watt-Cloutier named histories of colonial trauma – including the destruction and minimization of Indigenous culture, ways of life, and spiritual practices by the dominant Western ones; the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes and placement in residential schools; the forced relocations of Indigenous peoples to the Arctic “in the name of sovereignty”; the deliberate killing of Indigenous sled and hunting dogs; and the Canadian bans on seal hunts – as being responsible for fostering dependencies in what had previously been independent communities. To combat the poverty, poor health, food insecurity, addiction, violence, and high rates of suicide that plague Indigenous communities as a result of said colonial trauma, control has to be given back to “a people who have been trapped in the freedom of their ability to think and act for themselves.” She prescribed culture as ‘medicine’ in her statement: “the Indigenous wisdom and knowledge is the medicine that the world seeks to create a sustainable world. Ice is our life force. It is our food system.” Country food is medicine that grounds your emotions, and the ceremony and rituals “build up the confidence of the first hunt of our young men, the first garment that is sown by our young women.” “It is a bond with one another,” said Watt-Cloutier, who cited as an example the communal bond that results from eating from the same animal, which connects one to the hunter and also to one’s ancestry. 

According to Watt-Cloutier, the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown reduced pollution and cleared up the skies and air were indicative of the planet’s lesson to us that we need to return to Indigenous ways, to “realign economic values with those of the Indigenous world, rather than simply adopting the values of Western society.” In her view, acting unsustainably and causing irreparable damage to the atmosphere forces the planet to react with violent storms and erratic events: “we’re seeing perfectly normal reactions to abnormal circumstances.” Following this line of thought, Watt-Cloutier stated that “human trauma and planet trauma are one and the same,” as she related the imagery of the planet reacting negatively in response to the environmental harm that we have caused to Indigenous children turning to negative coping mechanisms and self-destructive behaviours in response to the colonial trauma they have suffered. 

There is a current lack of imagination in the world, in Watt-Cloutier’s opinion. Yet, we desperately need the re-imagination of a different way of developing more sustainable businesses, the re-imagination of new ways to do business with one another, and the re-imagination of new ways of treating one another. The concepts of empathy, trust, and reconciliation are foundational to “re-imagin[ing] and re-engineer[ing] a way forward that really does things very differently.” The current pandemic is a grim reminder of the importance of approaching society’s issues, not as separate concerns, but as a deeply interconnected whole. In her opinion, the younger generation is currently moving in the direction of ‘heart-centered leadership,’ bringing “the human face, and the human dimension and heartbeat” to the pressing issues of today, which will help them tackle these interconnected complexities and incite real change in the world. To conclude, she urged people to learn more about the strength, culture, and resiliency of the Indigenous peoples, rather than seeing them merely as victims to colonial trauma and globalization. “We are not just ‘the trauma.’ We are a people who really know what sustainability is about.” 

Read Watt-Cloutier’s book, The Right to Be Cold, a memoir on the global threat of climate change from the perspective of her own Arctic childhood that was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2017 here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/417373/the-right-to-be-cold-by-sheila-watt-cloutier/9780143187646/excerpt

Special thanks to the Canada Foundation for Innovation for sponsoring this Big Thinking session and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Universities Canada, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation for sponsoring the Big Thinking series.