Speech by Sophie Prize winner Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Oslo Sophie Prize Ceremony June 15, 2005

Connectivity: The Arctic-The Planet

Remarks by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, at the Award Ceremony for the 2005 Sophie Prize


I always start in my mother tongue, Inuttitut.

I want to say how honoured I am to be here today in Oslo, Norway receiving this incredible prize.

I want to thank the Sophie Foundation for the great honour of receiving the Sophie Prize.  I certainly am humbled and honoured by this gesture and recognition.  Until a few months ago I was not aware of what the Sophie Prize was, but my grandson’s father, Qajaaq, told me all about the book, Sophie’s World, and insisted I read it.  I did not think I would receive a prize related to this remarkable book.  So let me thank the author, Jostein Gaarder, for making this all possible.  I also want to acknowledge friends, colleagues, distinguished guests and family in the audience and I would like to single out the ICC Canada President, Duane Smith and Carl Christian Olsen from ICC Greenland.  Welcome to this event as well on behalf of our people.

I want also to thank Lars Haltbrekken for nominating me for the Sophie Prize.  I met Lars last December in Buenos Aires at the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But I did not know at that time the nomination process was underway.

That was a wonderful introduction.  The pictures are so powerful and I do love the snowflake, it is so fitting.  The performers, the children, the harp, all of it has been wonderful.

Let me begin by honouring where I come from: the Inuit world.  I was born into an ancient culture and have humble beginnings.  So, I am moved personally and as a member of an ancient people.  This prize is important to Inuit everywhere.

I am able to do global work because my culture, my hunting culture, gives me the foundation and focus I need.  It is my humble beginnings connected to my hunting culture that gives me the foundation upon which I do this global work with a sense of focus, commitment, and tenacity.  It is through this culture that draws connections to everything that I too have come to see and understand connectivity from the community level through to the globe at large.

Inuit have a deep understanding of the cycles, rhythms, seasons, and natural changes in life.  Living on the land requires a high level of independence, self-confidence, good judgment, initiative, and skill.  In my hunting culture, challenges are very real and immediate, and this remains so today.  But the skills and attitudes needed to survive on the land are transferable and highly relevant in the rapidly changing world in which we all now live.

Let me try to give you a window on my world.  I am part of a generation that has experienced tumultuous change in a very short period of time.  We have come from a traditional world to a high tech way of life.  In 51 years I have come from traveling by dog team and canoe to flying jumbo jets all over the world.  In fact this gives a new meaning to the term “coming from the ice age to space age in one generation”.

This change has been at great cost to Inuit society.  Our communities witness much challenges in terms of our families and communities.  Our families and communities have been shaken by the change from a strong, independent way of life—living and learning from the land with our own education, judicial, social and economic systems now to a way of life highly dependent on substances, institutions and processes.

But now we are thinking.  We are stopping to look at what’s happening in our communities.  We are starting to look at these things but more importantly we are starting to feel.  We have begun to recognize what has happened in our Inuit world.  We are beginning to realize the need to regain control that has been lost in recent decades—over our health and the health of our communities.  We have begun to appreciate even more the importance of the wisdom of the land in regaining the health of our families and communities.

The land not only teaches technical skills of aiming the gun or harpoon or skinning a seal, it teaches what is required to survive, giving confidence to our people and it builds the character, skills of judgment, courage, patience, boldness under pressure and withstanding stress.  A sense of peace.  It is wisdom, ultimately that we are trying to teach our children so that they can choose life over self-destruction.

As we regain and reclaim a more sustainable way of life we realize the Arctic is being harmed by global processes.  Inuit are being poisoned from afar by toxins—PCBs, DDT and other chemicals—carried to the Arctic on air currents.  These chemicals contaminate the food web we depend upon, seals, whales, walruses and end-up in our bodies and the nursing milk of our mothers in high levels.  So what a world we have created when Inuit women have to think twice about nursing their babies.  Climate change is happening very fast in the Arctic.  Our hunting culture is literally melting away as ice and snow disappears.  What sad irony is this?

However, powerless victims we are not.  The Inuit culture not only survived but also thrived harmoniously with nature in what people call the harshest environment in the world.  We invented homes of snow, warm enough for our babies to sleep in naked.  We invented the qajaaq, the most ingeniously engineered boat.  Inuit won’t disappear or be wiped out by globalization.  Rather, we hope our destiny is to light a beacon for the world.

I think by now you see these issues are not just about the environment or wildlife; these issues are about children, families, and communities.  This is about people—the cultural survival of an entire people—, which, of course, are connected to the survival of the planet as a whole.  What happens in the Arctic is important to all of us.  The Arctic is indeed the health barometer—the early warning—for the rest of the world.

Science and Inuit traditional knowledge agree: climate change is endangering the Arctic and the whole planet.  But some won’t take effective change and action.  Last November all eight Arctic countries, including the United States, endorsed the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment—prepared over four years by more than 300 scientists from 15 countries and many Indigenous peoples and in fact, the chair of ACIA Bob Corell is here with us today.  This assessment states that our ancient connection to our hunting culture may well disappear and within my own grandson’s lifetime.

So, we want to urge all the leaders of the G8, and particularly President Bush, who are meeting next month in Scotland, to commit to significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.  We must go beyond Kyoto.  As the Minister indicated, Kyoto is but our first step.  The place to start is Montreal in November and December at the 11th Conference of Parties to the climate change convention.  It will be very important that the world get together to make effective change there and start the process.

I must also say that the European Union plan to allow for a 2 degrees Centigrade of warming will still see the destruction of Arctic ecosystems.  The melting of the Greenland ice sheet will flood low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and many small island states.  We cannot let fear prevent us from taking action.

It is because climate change is a human story that we have connected climate change and human rights.  We hope that the language of human rights will bridge perspectives and illustrate the seriousness of global warming.  We need to capture the attention and conscience of the world, for climate change is a threat to our entire way of life, and to yours.

Inuit remain intimately connected with each other and with the land.  And, it is not to re-establish that connection that we are all grappling with climate change?  Is it not because people have lost the connection between themselves and their neighbors, between their actions and the environment that we are struggling to come to grips with climate change?

There are only 155,000 Inuit in the whole world, and as I said we face many challenges, but I am blessed to have my feet firmly planted in my culture. Working from within my culture, and as Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, I am privileged to have a “birds eye view” of the challenges and opportunities out there on the horizon.  There are lonely moments but more often there is this gift of awareness, of the connectivity of all things.

I believe strongly that understanding the connectivity will bring the world to a place of “mutual ground.” When we see that as the Arctic melts the Small Island Developing States sink, we see clearly how the planet is one.  It cannot get clearer than that in terms of understanding connectivity.  We must also see the connections as well as the lack of balance between unsustainable economic policies adopted by some countries, and how these policies are leading to the destruction of the entire way of life of a people, the people of the Arctic.

I applaud the vision and commitment of the Government of Norway to support a five-year programme suggested by the United Nations Environment Programme office in Arendal and ICC to link Arctic interests and the Small Island Developing States.  These areas are both vulnerable to climate change and we can learn so much from one another.

As I said last fall to a committee of the US Senate:

Global warming connects us all. Use what is happening in the Arctic as a vehicle to connect us all, so that we may understand that the planet and its people are one. The Inuit hunter who falls through the depleting and unpredictable sea ice is connected to the cars we drive, the industries we rely upon, and the disposable world we have become.

This prize encourages me to keep up the good fight, so to speak, not only for our people but also for the planet. This is a time and an opportunity for all of us to recognize our shared humanity and to deepen our shared concern and commitment to the well being of the planet.  Rest assured that this prize encourages me to continue my work connecting climate change and human rights.

As our hunting culture is based on the cold, being frozen with lots of snow and ice, we thrive on it.  We are in essence fighting for our right to be cold.  So together let us choose to ere on the side of caution rather than wait until it is too late.  In further understanding connectivity, our move to link climate change and human rights is not personal in terms of targeting a specific country.  It is a political strategy for the right reasons at the right time in this time in history.  Please take the time if you can on the web site to read my testimony to the US Senate last fall.

Where it does get personal ladies and gentlemen is at the people level; at the receiving end of pollution and the negative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.  It is personal when Inuit mothers have to worry and make difficult choices about feeding their babies and whether or not they should.  It is personal when the fathers and grandfathers are now worried how they will pass down traditional knowledge and skills to our young men, young men who in our society often carry the heaviest burdens of a transitioning culture and all too often take the most drastic exits from life.  “Human Rights” indeed.

As the mother and grandmother in me, drives all that I do and leads the elected leader in me and I do this work for the future of my precious grandson, I want you to know I am humbly proud to accept the Sophie Prize for all of us in our Inuit home lands.  I think of my young grandson.  I think of his father hunting.  I think of all of those young people at home who are grappling with issues and who all too often we lose so young.

I also want to take this opportunity at this time to honour and remember my family members that I have lost in the last 5 years while doing this global work.  In memory of my only beloved sister, in memory of my aunt, in memory of my mother and my young cousin, I accept from my heart and soul this prize.  The influence, love and support I received from these three important women remain with me always and since their departing in the last few years I feel they have never left my side. 

In that light I wish to end with a quote by an American poet named Louise Bogan whose words speak to me in the work I do. 

“In a time lacking in truth and certainty and filled with anguish and despair, no woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world through her work, a portion of its lost heart”