The Right to Be Cold

Siila Watt-Cloutier | The Right to Be Cold

Reviewed by: John C. Clark

About the Authors:   Siila Watt-Cloutier is an environmental and human rights activist from northern Quebec. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work highlighting the impacts of global climate change on human rights. She is a recipient of the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the Norwegian Sophie Prize. She is also an Officer of the Order of Canada and past international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. 

About the Book:    Siila Watt-Cloutier’s memoir, “The Right to Be Cold”, was shortlisted for Canada Reads and a finalist for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-fiction. The intriguing title (who wants to be cold?) is an early warning that the Inuit Arctic experience may be different from what we assume. It is a powerful and sometimes painfully candid narrative.

Siila Watt-Cloutier was born in the Inuit community of Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec where she was raised by a single mother and single grandmother. Her father, who became an RCMP officer, refused to acknowledge any connection to her. Kuujjuaq was a community in rapid transition, changing from a tiny, mostly traditional outpost into a community – like many in today’s North – organized around southern living arrangements and ill suited to the needs of northerners.

The book’s anecdotes are poignant. For example, the RCMP removing and destroying all sled dogs over a vast area, out of a concern for potential disease transmission. Watt-Cloutier describes the effect of this on her uncle, who had his beloved dogs shot in front of him with little warning and no options available to him (despite the questionable rational for the action). The roots of the author’s activism are easy to see.

Watts-Cloutier describes how it felt to be sent, in grade 4 young and alone, to live with a new family in the South so she could attend school. She was then sent to a barracks-like residential school, also in the South, for the next phase of her education. Having one foot in modern western society and the other in her Inuit community – but never having both feet in either – stoked her lifelong ambition to bridge this gap.

The book describes the author’s many powerful connections to her Inuit heritage. She beautifully describes her participation in traditional hunts with Inuit hunters. Such experiences gave her a profound understanding of the delicate balance between human activity and the Arctic environment. She helps us see this interdependence between Inuit livelihoods and the natural world, and makes a compelling case for the preservation of Indigenous knowledge and practices.

Siila Watt-Cloutier’s advocacy has extended well beyond Indigenous rights to encompass broader environmental issues. Her efforts to highlight the impacts of climate change on Arctic ecosystems and communities earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (she was co-nominated with Al Gore, who never bothered to meet with her).

“The Right to Be Cold” is an amazing account of one woman’s resilience and determination in the face of cultural and ecological crises. Siila Watt-Cloutier is also a warm and wonderful speaker. We are looking forward to having her at this year’s Readers and Writers Festival, and to her helping us understand the challenges that face the North in this era of rapid climate change.

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