Watt-Cloutier, Sheila

Environmental activist, essayist and politician born in Kuujjuaq (Nunavik) in 1953.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, also written Siila Watt-Cloutier, was born in Kuujjuaq, formally known as Old Fort Chimo, in 1953. In 1957, her family moved across the river to what was known as Fort Chimo, a former American military base. Her mother, Daisy Watt (1922-2002), was an interpreter and a great accordion player. Her brother, Charlie Watt, was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1983 where he was senator for 34 years and was awarded an Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 1984. Sheila Watt-Cloutier lived a traditional Inuit way of life until the age of ten, until she was sent away by the Canadian government to attend schools in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and finally high school in Ottawa. These years away from home were difficult, and she moved back to Kuujjuaq at the age of eighteen, to work in the community’s healthcare centre. She relocated with her husband and children to Montreal in 1977 and took courses with several other Inuit by McGill professors for a specific student counsellor’s training administered by the Kativik School Board.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier worked as a student counsellor in Kuujjuaq, then in the office of the Kativik School Board in Dorval, Québec, for ten years. The Kativik School Board administers education for all of the fourteen communities of Nunavik with a focus on Inuit culture, language and values as its intended foundation. After leaving the Kativik School Board, Sheila Watt-Cloutier became the Inuk advisor to the Nunavik Education Task Force where the committee comprised of other fellow Inuit produced a document entitled, “Silatunirmut – The Pathway to Wisdom” (1992), which testified to the weaknesses of the educational system in Inuit communities. In 1995, she was elected to the position of corporate secretary for the Makivik Corporation, an organization responsible for the economic and social development of Inuit communities in Nunavik within the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The same year, she was elected Canadian President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). In 2002, she became the International Chair of the ICC representing all Inuit of the circumpolar regions and stayed in this position until 2006. As such, she authored the Foreword of the Encyclopedia of the Arctic (2005) edited by Mark Nuttall, an important research tool elaborated with a circumpolar approach. 

Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s career brings together three aspects that overlap and define her as a person: defending of Inuit human rights, environmental advocacy and authoring a book entitled The Right to be Cold. She has made arctic climate change her personal mission, understanding how climate change negatively impacts the Inuit hunting way of life. She was engaged in and influential in the UN global negotiations fighting against POP’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants) that negatively affect the health and cultural heritage of Inuit communities. In 2005, she launched one of the first legal actions linking climate change and human rights. She petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the human Inuit right to be cold. Some of the awards she received for this work have been the Champions of the Earth Award from the United Nations Environment Programme, and the Sophie Prize, an international award recognizing distinguished involvement in the fields of environment and development.  She became Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006. She was nominated with Al Gore, for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and in 2015; she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the “alternative Nobel Prize”.

In 2015, her autobiography The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet was published and then translated into French in 2019 under the title Le droit au froid. This book has been nominated for several important literary awards, British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the CBC Canada Reads prize. 

Sheila Watt-Cloutier currently lives in Kuujjuaq (Nunavik). She has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Université Laval (Québec) in 2020.

This biography is based on the available written material during a collective research carried out during 2018-2021. It is possible that mistakes and facts need to be corrected. If you notice an error, or if you wish to correct something in an author's biography, please write to us at imaginairedunord@uqam.ca and we will be happy to do so. This is how we will be able to have more precise presentations, and to better promote Inuit culture.

(c) International Laboratory for Research on Images of the North, Winter and the Arctic, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2018-2021, Daniel Chartier and al.