Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet

I always love the anticipatory buzz of the events of the Writers Festival. Perhaps I begin every event review with those same words, but that is because they are true. The selection of events is diverse and fascinating, and none so much as this pre-festival event with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who is, to say the very least, a distinguished and engaging speaker.


As with many of the other events of the Writers Festival, this event took place at Centretown United Church. Often the beauty and acoustics of such old churches are merely a surfeit. On Tuesday, however, those acoustics were more important than ever due to the opening performance of traditional dance and throat singing from the Nunavut Sivuniksavut students. This was my first time hearing throat singing, which I found haunting and beautiful, and an excellent introduction and connection to Watt-Cloutier’s life and work.


As Intuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Terry Audla shared in the introduction to this event, Sheila Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has thirteen honorary doctorates, and possesses a seemingly endless list of other achievements. She is an environmental activist and educator, and is strongly connected to the Ottawa community based on how many familiar faces she pointed out at her event.


Watt-Cloutier’s first book, The Right to be Cold, may initially be perceived as a book about the environment and climate change. As Writers Festival founder Neil Wilson commented, however, The Right to be Cold is more of a love letter and memoir than an environmental treatise. Watt-Cloutier made clear that a large part of her intent behind her book The Right to be Cold was to alleviate the burden placed on the current generation because they carry so much trauma from their predecessors. There was much talk at this event about having Watt-Cloutier’s book incorporated into school curriculum, which I whole-heartedly agree with.


When speaking about the book’s content, Watt-Cloutier made sure to emphasize that putting the challenges of the Inuit people into context was important. Watt-Cloutier explained that, contrary to what many people believe, it is not just a way of life that has been taken from the Inuit communities and they aren’t able to adapt. In fact, Watt-Cloutier points out, Inuit people are highly adaptable due to the importance of hunting within Inuit culture.


People have asked Watt-Cloutier why she spends so much of her time and energy focusing on the environment when so many other social problems exist. Her consistent response is that she does not see any disconnect between environmental problems and social ones. One of the examples she provided was that of the seismic testing in Clyde River. The Clyde River community is concerned that seismic testing would harm or frighten away the marine animals upon which Clyde River residents depend upon for survival. Although the seismic testing certainly concerns the environment, Watt-Cloutier shows that there are also deep connections to the lives of people. Watt-Cloutier also mentioned of her work with Many Strong Voices, a fascinating and important initiative that works to connect Inuit communities where the ice is melting to small island nations where the land is sinking.


Although the last thing most Canadians are thinking of at this time of year is how badly they want to be cold, Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s book will cause them to consider the cold in a different light, and to side with Watt-Cloutier with believing that we all have more in common than we think. For those curious about the specific content of the book, Naomi Klein’s review of The Right to be Cold is well worth the read.