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Watt-Cloutier, Sheila

Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference since 2002, Sheila Watt-Cloutier is recognized for her untiring efforts on behalf of Arctic indigenous peoples worldwide and, in particular, the Aboriginal peoples of Northern Canada. She champions many critical contemporary issues including Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), sustainable development, traditional ecological knowledge, northern education and the impact of climate change on northern regions among others. Her distinctive and authoritative voice as an Inuit leader is heard internationally at the highest political levels as well as at the local level in northern communities.

In her former capacity as President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) and Vice-President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Watt-Cloutier played a prominent role during negotiations leading up to and during the Global Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in the late 1990s. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) used its observer status to lobby, inform and educate participants during the international conferences sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). During the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Nairobi, Kenya in 1999, Watt-Cloutier presented an Inuit carving of a mother and child to Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of UNEP, and this powerful carving came to represent the conscience and heart of the negotiations.

During the various international meetings of the Global Convention, Watt-Cloutier and other northern leaders successfully focused world attention on the impact of Persistent Organic Pollutants on the Arctic region. These toxic, long-lasting contaminants are carbon-based products and by-products of industrial activities that originate in Europe, Asia, the United States and other areas south of the Arctic. Through the process of condensation and evaporation known as the "grasshopper effect," POPs travel by air, wind, and water currents and are deposited in Arctic regions after encountering low temperatures. POPs (sometimes referred to as the "Dirty Dozen") include the following 12 pollutants: polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT, furan, dioxin, lindane, mirex, heptachlor, endrin, toxaphene and chlordane.

While the impact of these pollutants has largely been construed as an environmental issue, Watt-Cloutier has identified significant negative ramifications beyond environmental concerns for Inuit culture, health and traditional way of life. During the mid 1980s, POPs were detected in alarmingly high rates in the breast milk and blood of Inuit mothers in northern Quebec and southern Baffin Island. Subsequent studies revealed that POPs have a high lipid solubility and bioaccummulate and biomagnify in the fatty tissues of marine mammals such as beluga whale and seal - the mainstay of the traditional diet of many northern peoples. Recent evidence suggests that consuming these contaminated foods has devastating consequences for human health including neurological, endocrinological, and behavioral disorders. Consequences are particularly dire for women as POPs have been linked to high rates of breast cancer and reproductive disorders, afflictions and mutations that are additionally transferred inter-generationally through the placenta and breast milk. Watt-Cloutier asserts that traditional country foods are an integral part of Inuit culture and that they play an important role not only in nutrition and health but also in the maintenance of spiritual, social and economic values and practices.

Watt-Cloutier is notable for her adroitness and skill in raising the profile of northern Aboriginal peoples on the international stage and in creating effective partnerships between Aboriginal organizations and governments. She has been particularly active in the area of sustainable development. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference has promoted sustainable development since 1986 with the adoption of a series of strategies and reforms outlined in Towards An Inuit Regional Conservation Strategy. Through her involvement with the Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Watt-Cloutier helped to establish links with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). One result of this partnership was a project strengthening regional governments in Northern Russia and stressing practical aspects of co-management of land and natural resources. As president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada), she coordinated annual humanitarian missions to Russian Aboriginal groups in Chukotka supported by North American government agencies and northern organizations such as the North Slope Borough in Barrow, Alaska. Additionally, Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) has implemented sustainable development projects with Mayan and Garifuna Indians in Belize. Watt-Cloutier emphasizes that sustainable development is more effectively achieved when projects and policies bring Aboriginal peoples and organizations together to learn from one another.

Watt-Cloutier has stressed the importance of establishing partnerships between Aboriginal organizations, government agencies and the research community when addressing the potential impacts of climate change in the north. She has urged a bridging of the gap between Western scientific rationalism and the Aboriginal worldview in order that both perspectives may be brought to bear on the issue of climate change. Much is unknown about the consequences of climate change but it is assumed by most scientists that the Arctic is one of the regions that will be most significantly affected. Watt-Cloutier has highlighted the role played by traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and Inuit wisdom in identifying and investigating environmental problems including climate change.

According to Fikret Berkes, Milton Freeman, and other scholars, traditional ecological knowledge is acquired by Aboriginal peoples through the establishment of a long and intimate connection with the land. In the north, TEK can be used to identify changes in sea ice conditions, animal health and behavior, species density and climatic patterns. Watt-Cloutier has recommended that traditional ecological knowledge and other Aboriginal knowledge systems assume a more prominent role in dealing with current issues including climate change.

Watt-Cloutier has earned the respect and admiration of her peers and colleagues who commend her for her passionate commitment to northern Aboriginal peoples. She has fearlessly entered the realms of Arctic health, education, environment, politics and culture and demonstrates how all are inter-related and equally important. She insists that the world sees the human face- the Inuit face- when contemplating significant issues affecting the Arctic region.

Biography

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was born in Kuujjuaq, Northern Quebec, Canada on 2 December 1953. Her mother, Daisy Watt (1921-2002) was one of Kuujjuaq's best-known elders and was recognized throughout Nunavik for her skills as a healer, interpreter and musician. Her brother, politician Charlie Watt, was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1983 and was made an Officer of the Order of Quebec in 1984. Watt-Cloutier was sent at the age of 10 to Nova Scotia and Churchill, Manitoba for schooling. At McGill University in Montreal, she took counseling courses as well as occupational and training sessions dealing with education and human development. In the mid-1970s, she worked as an Inuktitut interpreter for the Ungava Hospital and worked to improve health conditions and education in Nunavik over the next 15 years. From 1991-95, she worked extensively as an advisor in a review of the education system in Northern Quebec resulting in the groundbreaking report, "Siatunirmut- The Pathway to Wisdom" compiled and published by the Nunavik Educational Task Force in 1992. Watt-Cloutier oversaw the administration of the Inuit land-claims body established under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement as Corporate Secretary of Makivik from 1995 to 1998. She entered politics in 1995. She has two adult children and a grandson. Her daughter is a well-known traditional Inuit throat-singer, drum-dancer and singer. Her son is a pilot and the youngest captain ever employed by Air Inuit. Watt-Cloutier currently resides in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada.

Joanna Kafarowski

See also Inuit Circumpolar Conference; Persistent organic pollutants (POPs); Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON)

Further Reading

Berkes, Fikret, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource4 Management, Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1999

Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, "Arctic Contaminants: An Unfinished Agenda" in Northern Perspectives, 25(2), 1998: 1-22

Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, "Persistent Organic Pollutants- Are We Close to a Solution?" in Northern Perspectives, 26(1), 2000: 1-20

Downie, David Leonard and Terry Fenge (editors), Northern Lights Against POPs: Combatting Toxic Threats in the Arctic, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003

Freeman, Milton, "The Nature and Utility of Traditional Ecological Knowledge" in Northern Perspectives, 20(1), 1992: 7-12

Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada) website: www.inuitcircumpolar.com

Nunavik Educational Task Force, Final Report of the Nunavik Educational Task Force, Lachine: Quebec,1992

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila, "Honouring Our Past, Creating Our Future: Education in Northern and Remote Communities" in Aboriginal Education: Fulfilling the Promise, edited by Lynne Davis, Louise Lahache and Marlene Castellano, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila, "Capturing Spirit" in Makivik News, No. 43, 1997/98 Winter issue, 11-13

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila, "Becoming Aware of Another Form of Violence" in Makivik News, No. 42, 1997, Spring issue, 48-50

Wilson, Simon, Janine Murray and Henry Huntington (editors), AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues, Oslo: Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, 1998


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