“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”
Born in Kuujuuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec in 1953, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has borne witness to tremendous change in the Inuit way of life over the past six decades. Her diverse career has included work in the fields of health and education before she turned to climate activism in the 1990s. However, all of these pursuits have a unifying purpose; the protection of Inuit culture and the well-being of Inuit people. Part memoir and part call to action, The Right to Be Cold combines scientific evidence and Inuit traditional knowledge, putting a human face on the impact of climate change, which has been acutely felt in the Arctic region Watt-Cloutier calls home. Focusing on the interconnectedness of all things, Watt-Cloutier positions Inuit as sentinels, sounding the alarm about issues that have already devastated the Arctic, but must eventually impact the entire world.
Watt-Cloutier does a wonderful job of putting a human face on climate change, both by giving accounts of traditional Inuit practices, and chronicling how they have changed as the Arctic warms. She also writes very understandable explanations of the scientific processes that are involved in climate change, including explaining why the poles are experiencing the phenomenon at a more rapid rate than other parts of the planet. By describing her Inuit childhood, Watt-Cloutier is able to illustrate how much has changed in such a short period. For the first the first ten years of her life she traveled only by dog sled, until the government executed most of the sled dogs in the 1960s. Today, travel by sled or snow machine is difficult because the texture of the snow has changed due to rising temperatures. Travel over once-solid sea ice has also been made dangerous by the changes wrought by temperature and pollutants. The traditional knowledge of the elders that once kept hunters safe is rapidly becoming obsolete in a swiftly-changing environment.
While humanizing the issues is certainly one of Watt-Cloutier’s strengths, the book does get bogged down in the middle, in the chapters “POPs and the Inuit Journey,” and “The Right to Be Cold.” These chapters chronicle her international political advocacy as the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where she served for eleven years beginning in 1995. Her first major issue was Persistent Organic Pollutants which, due to weather systems, tend to gather in the Arctic and poison traditional Inuit food sources as they accumulate at the top of the food chain. After the Stockholm Convention, the organization turned its attention to climate change. Watt-Cloutier then advanced the argument that climate change is a human rights issue, because it directly impacts all of the other recognized human rights. Unfortunately, these chapters can be a little bit inside baseball, consisting of long lists of the many international players, which will not be relevant to the average reader. These chapters do serve to illustrate the immense difficulty and cooperation needed to orchestrate an agreement on an international issue, but this could have been accomplished with only a few of the telling anecdotes. For example, at a conference where the ICC was only an observer, the organization tried to get the Canadian delegation to mention the impacts on the Arctic in relation to climate change. When they dismissed the request, the ICC instead turned to the Samoan delegation, which agreed to mention that the flooding they were experiencing from rising sea levels was a direct result of the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.
The Right to Be Cold was represented in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer Chantal Kreviazuk, who had a couple of disadvantages representing this title. While all of the other panelists appeared live in the studio in Toronto, Kreviazuk appeared by video link from Los Angeles due to the fact that her son was in the hospital there. Kreviazuk did her best to try to turn this to the book’s advantage by pointing out that her son’s acute asthma attack was caused by increased pollen levels that are a direct result of a warmer climate. However, due to the slight lag in the video link, it was difficult for Kreviazuk to jump into the back and forth of the debate, although host Ali Hassan did a good job of ensuring that questions were addressed to her, and offering her opportunities to respond. Kreviazuk was also defending the only non-fiction title among this year’s selections, which has historically been a disadvantage. Since Canada Reads began in 2002, Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre has been the only non-fiction winner in 2012, although the 2015 winner Ru was heavily based on autobiographical elements of Kim Thuy’s life.
Despite these disadvantages, Kreviazuk mounted a strong case for The Right to Be Cold based on this year’s Canada Reads theme, “the one book Canada needs now.” Climate change is a compelling and time-sensitive issue that fits well with this topic. Kreviazuk also gained a vocal ally when Candy Palmater became a free agent after The Break was eliminated on day one. Although Palmater cast a strategic vote against The Right to Be Cold in an effort to save her own book on the first day, she subsequently fought strongly for the book she initially voted to eliminate. In addition to bringing forth some Indigenous perspectives on aspects of the book, Palmater also pointed out the apples to oranges comparison of pitting one non-fiction title against the two remaining novels.
Throughout the week, the main argument against The Right to Be Cold centered on the amount of information provided and its readability as a result. Kreviazuk felt the wealth of information was necessary to ensure that the book was not dismissed as “just an opinion.” Jody Mitic felt that there was too much information not about Sheila herself. Measha Breuggergosman acknowledged that the topic was essential, but argued that The Right to Be Cold was simply not as engaging as the other books on the table. Humble the Poet also repeatedly raised the question of readability. The tension centered on the disconnect some panelists felt between the undisputed significance of the issue, and the accessibility of the manner in which it was presented. When it came time to vote, Palmater and Kreviazuk voted against Company Town, while Humble the Poet, Brueggergosman, and Mitic all cast their ballots against The Right to Be Cold, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.
Need to get caught up with Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette