In The Right to be Cold, Sheila Watt-Cloutier recalls her childhood in the Canadian Arctic and her fight against the threat of climate change as an adult. The author takes us through her travels to Nova Scotia and Ontario at a young age, as well as her time in a residential vocational school in Churchill, Manitoba. During her years away from home, she had lost a great deal of her culture – it would be years before she was again fluent in her mother tongue – and when she returned home, it would be a different community than the one she had left.
Watt-Cloutier tells of her battles with the KSB ( Kuujjuaq School Board) as a member of an independent task force charged with improving the education system. As her career developed, she took a position with Inuit Circumpolar Council where she began her fight to recognize climate change as a human rights issue rather than a political or economical issue. The way she explains it is that basically the Arctic acts as a sort of giant petri dish for POPs (persistent organic pollutants). As the industrialized world to the south releases more and more pollutants into the atmosphere, as the chemicals evaporate, they settle into colder climates to the north. In turn, this contaminates the air, the animals (food source) and the water. Before this was discovered, the lack of industry in the North led to the common belief that the Arctic is a pristine and unaffected ecosystem, but all the pollution from the industrialized south – from which the Northern community receives no direct economic benefit – has turned their environment into a toxic depository.
Another topic discussed, albeit briefly, is the residential school system. Canada’s a great country, right? We’re often portrayed as harmless, hockey fanatics who just can’t stop apologizing to everyone, even if we did nothing wrong. That’s why it is so shocking to look into our past and see a pretty brutal and often overlooked era in our nation’s history. The mistreatment of our indigenous population is something I had only recently been made vaguely aware of and I can guarantee you it is something I was not taught in school (side note: Canada did offer a formal apology in 2008). Sheila’s own experiences in the residential school system, while upsetting, were a walk in the park compared to those suffered by the students at the ones run by Christian missionaries – something she seems to feel a lot of guilt over.
Much of the information in here is unsettling to say the least and for that reason alone, I believe this to be an important book. It’s easy to stick your head in the sand and ignore the more unsavory aspects of our great country but Canadians should be made aware of their history, warts and all. Otherwise, we risk marginalizing the very real struggles of those who have had their culture and rights swept under the rug.