Watt-Cloutier, S. (2016). The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, The Arctic and The Whole Planet. Canada: Penguin Canada Books Inc.

The Right to be Cold

“We Inuit are the ground-truthers of climate change” (324).

“By protecting the Arctic, you save the planet” (233).

While it is a great many things, The Right To Be Cold is fundamentally a book about impressive leadership and the future of Canada. And through its historical lens, it is also a story of Canada: a country with a troubled past, continuing to struggle to create a common set of narratives for all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

To know Sheila (or, Siila, pronounced SEE-LA in Inuktitut) Watt-Cloutier is to understand her personal journey. Born of a qallunaat (white) father and Inuk mother but raised by the latter, Siila initially enjoyed a traditional upbringing on the land. However, this was soon disrupted. As was the case for so many Indigenous youth of the time, Watt-Cloutier was separated from her family and forced to undergo schooling elsewhere. As it did for many of her fellow Inuit, this split unmoored her from her cultural foundations and identity at a critical time, and caused a great deal of pain and uncertainty.

For instance, Siila recounts how during her forced relocation for schooling to Churchill, Manitoba, three Inuit fellow students naively set out to track a polar bear and the result was tragedy: “I’m struck by the fact that we Inuit children had been removed from the people who world have taught us life-saving skills about our Arctic wildlife” (46). Even from this single example it’s not hard to see how so many other Inuit teachings and traditions were missed on account of such wrongheaded policies.

To know and understand Watt-Cloutier is to recognize the various wrongs visited upon her and her people, but also to recognize the incredible strength and resiliency that she and they exemplify. Indeed, as Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Attorney General of Canada, has recently and wisely argued, “for reconciliation to fully manifest itself in Canada, denial must be ended in all of its aspects, and recognition must become the foundation of relations” (Globe and Mail, July 18, 2017). Similarly, understanding the effects of dislocation and dispossession on our Indigenous fellow citizens is critical to coming together and building a Canada that understands its uncomfortable history and is committed to effectively addressing it.

Sadly, there is much to recognize. However, work to recognize and resolve it we must; for as Watt-Cloutier warns, “if our parents and grandparents haven’t had the opportunity to deal with their issues, [then] their children carry that baggage and have to work through it for them” (279). To be sure, the Canada we wish to build depends on collectively working through these issues.

One thing that should be both remarkable and inspirational to northerners is that, while Watt-Cloutier first cut her teeth in politics and governance in Kuujjuaq, the impact of her leadership has been felt around the globe. Indeed, it was during her leadership at the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) that Watt-Cloutier did her most important and impressive work addressing the matter of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Recognizing how faraway actions could affect Inuit life at home, Watt-Cloutier has remarked that “our challenges are local, but they were [and are] part of something global” (121).

For aspiring leaders, there is much to learn in Watt-Cloutier’s nuanced approach. In her words:

“I thought we could make a stronger impact through the politics of influence rather than through the politics of conflict or confrontation. I’m a firm believer that synergy is created when you look for answers that will bring about change in perspective at a time when people, the world, cultures or communities are ready for that change” (222).

By favouring a “politics of influence, rather than the politics of protest” (179), Watt-Cloutier sophisticatedly sought allies in island nations who – like the Inuit – were experiencing the earliest impacts of climate change and could join in helping make convincing arguments about its reality and the need to address it. In taking this approach, she demonstrated how the greatest domestic and global challenges require a keen understanding of human behaviour, the powers of persuasion and that there is strength in numbers.

Although Watt-Cloutier succeeded in making significant headway at an international level while working with the ICC, she often faced unexpected challenges at home. She recounts how at an United Nations’ Conference of the Parties meeting in 2003, they could not get the Canadian delegation to even mention the Arctic in their submission, nor to stress its importance as an indicator of climate change’s adverse effects (229).

Another example can be found in the unfortunate reality that Watt-Cloutier’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize had to come from two Norwegian parliamentarians, Conservative MP Børge Brende and Socialist Left Party MP Heidi Sørensen, rather than from a fellow Canadian; indeed, it is symptomatic of our problem. As she remarked, “the Nobel nomination seemed to make my own country wake up to my work, to ask who I was and what my message was all about in a way they hadn’t before” (265). We will not have achieved the Canada we wish to build until Indigenous peoples and interests are equally reflected in the accomplishments we choose to celebrate.

Our country’s voice in the world will be strengthened when Indigenous interests play a more formative in it. With respect to climate change, Watt-Cloutier has pointed out that:

“the power of the rights-based approach was that it moved the discussion out of the realm of dry economic and technical debate that too often overtakes discussion at UN climate change conferences. Instead, the new strategy took the path of principle, showing that fundamental change was not just sound policy, but an ethical imperative” (230).

She is right to underscore that “the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face” (259).

Ever the effective diplomat, Watt-Cloutier recognizes that the art of persuasion lies in forging common interests. For instance, in her work to protect the environment of the Inuit and their way of life, Watt-Cloutier has had to map out and connect those various international interests. Thus, to effectively respond to international colleagues who fail to see those common interests, she has argued that “the rights we’re fighting for are [their] rights too. Just as our environment is [their] environment too. That’s why we want people like [them] to join us. We all have the right to be protected from climate change” (231). Matters like the environment have a way of connecting us all and giving us common purpose.

In her excellent work to limit the global production of POPs, Watt-Cloutier has also demonstrated how Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit Traditional Knowledge) and Western science can complement one another in understanding and addressing the climate change challenges before us (199).

If we define leadership as the art of influencing human behaviour in order to accomplish a specific objective; then for Watt-Cloutier her work has always been about the imperative of leadership, that is, the need to lead and improve conditions for her people. This is beautiful in so many ways. For one, it reveals a form of leadership based on principle. Second, it reminds us all that leadership is not necessarily the purview of a special few; it can be our response to a challenge or problem needing resolution. Leadership, Watt-Cloutier remarks:

“means never losing sight of the fact that the issues at hand are so much bigger than you. Leadership is about working from a principled and ethical place within yourself. It is to model, authentically, for others, a sense of calm, clarity and focus. Leadership is to always check inward, to ensure you are leading from a position of strength, not fear or victimhood, so you do not project your own limitations to those you are modelling possibilities for” (268).

It is, of course, a key source of personal growth. Watt-Cloutier remarks “that “checking inward” and the personal growth that accompanies such introspection have been, I believe, instrumental to my own ability to succeed” (268).

Effective leadership and collective betterment means always keeping an eagle-eyed focus on what can be continually improved. In Watt-Cloutier’s time with the Kativik School Board, she had to deliver frank assessments about how the board could improve Inuit pedagogy and what might be corrected; much of this was met with defensiveness rather than appreciation (95). Leadership requires independent judgment and the courage to objectively assess efforts. However, telling it as it is also requires great tact and an ethic of “reaching out, not striking out” (294).

In an era where many Indigenous citizens are negotiating for themselves how best to preserve cultural traditions in the space of an ever-evolving present, Watt-Cloutier stands out for her ability to reconcile Inuit traditions in the contemporary context and to do so with an international sensibility. She argues that “our students also needed to learn about the world beyond their own doorstep, including environmental, political, economic and business issues—so they could see global changes coming their way and interact with the world more effectively. Global cultural access would be an important part of giving them a sense of control” (113).

Further, Watt-Cloutier refreshingly contends that “hunting culture is not a fondly remembered relic of the past. It’s not history. It’s a continuing contemporary way of life. And it’s perfectly compatible with the modern world” (320). To wit, she explains:

“Hunting is, in reality, a powerful process where we prepare our young for the challenges and opportunities not only for survival on the land and ice but also for life itself. The character skills learned on the hunt, of patience, boldness, tenacity, focus, courage, sound judgment and wisdom, are very transferable to the modern world that has come so quickly to the Arctic world” (254).

Treaty 8 Grand Chief Anthony Mercredi once wisely proclaimed: “we regard the right to be different not as an obstacle but as a foundation for our coexistence as distinct peoples”. Indeed, the task before our country is to recognize, understand and embrace that difference and to make sure that it forms part of what it means to be Canadian, both at home and abroad. Watt-Cloutier’s bold example challenges us to broaden the very conception of our self as a country. She states that “I believe the full meaning of our lives and the reason we are all here is to rewrite our histories” (284); the same can be said of our purpose with respect to defining a future Canada.

Nakurmiik for your leadership Siila. Perhaps you might consider running for Member of Parliament and continue helping us write a new history for the Canada we desire?

CHRISTIAN ALLAN BERTELSEN is the Manager of Crown Consultation Coordination for the Northern Projects Management Office of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. A proud northerner, his research interests focus on identity, discourse and ethics. This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IPAC or the Government of Canada.


Asch, Michael (2014). On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

On being here to stay

Michael Asch’s book, On Being Here to Stay, is an interesting take on Aboriginal rights and treaty rights. Asch addresses Settlers’ claim to their right to stay in Canada. He proposes a way forward, built on respect of the “spirit and intent” of treaties, so as to establish an ethical way for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to co-exist. Asch’s position with respect to colonized peoples is that it is wrong legally, as well as morally, to move onto lands belonging to others without first obtaining their permission.

Foundational to Asch’s work is the idea of temporal priority; that settlers arrived to find well-established Indigenous peoples and communities. His book appears to set the stage for an explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and even anarchist analysis of Indigenous-settler relations and treaties; all forms of analysis that he has not purported to engage with explicitly. It is with this approach in mind that Asch makes his arguments on Indigenous and Settler relations.

Asch begins by examining the history of Canada. He sets out the context for the book’s framework well and presents his assumptions up front. His work is broken down into two sections: the first dealing with treaty relationships, generally, and the second focusing specifically on Treaty Number 4. Asch’s conclusion is somewhat somewhat anti-climactic in that he concludes that Indigenous authorities’ depiction of the shared understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties to the treaties is accurate, through reviewing treaties, historical events, and case law.

It is with this conclusion that Asch lost my attention. I would submit that Asch’s finding, in my view, is an uncontroversial fact and one that need not be argued. The journals of treaty commissioners detail the negotiations around treaties and what both parties agreed to prior to signing the treaty. Asch does not add anything to the general discussion with this conclusion.

Asch also states that it is important to look at what Indigenous peoples today say about the terms of the treaties and how they should be interpreted. He notes, however strangely, that he leaves the words of Indigenous authorities un-interpreted within his book, stating that they are beyond paraphrasing. I find it difficult to understand why Asch would decidedly leave out the views of Indigenous authorities in a book that addresses the treaty relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. One can only guess as to his reasons, but Asch does confess within the book that his intent was “…to write a book that would need little further research.” Maybe this “confession” addresses this gap in his writing; that he relied more on his experiences and personal reflections than on completing further research.

Asch also refers in his book to the “nation-to-nation” relationship as a phrase that Indigenous authorities use but Asch himself, does not attempt to gather input from Indigenous peoples on its use or definition. This seems odd to me, given the importance surrounding the area of relationship building and reconciliation, especially today. I would submit that the views of Indigenous peoples would be quite important and relevant in this context; if not only to put into perspective the significance of the phrase. What one “nation” may define as “nation-to-nation” may be quite different from another’s definition; or from the colonial government, for that matter.

I can only wonder if it is the nature of the anthropologist to observe rather than interfere or interact with the community one is “studying” that limits his information gathering? The use of the term “nation-to-nation” is significant in defining Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships and by not addressing these two views within his book, I would submit, is an oversight; and this work suffers for it.

Asch concludes the first section of his book by suggesting that treaties offer one mechanism by which Settlers legitimized their settlement on Indigenous lands – by obtaining permission from the people who had the authority to grant it. I submit that this view imposes a Settler idea of ownership of the land on the reader. I am not sure I would agree with Asch’s finding. The land was utilized by a specific band and territories were, in a sense, established. With permission, however, others were able to cross or use the land – to share it. A key part that is missing from Asch’s conclusion, here, is that he does not make reference to the Royal Proclamation, 1763, where the King stated the land was “owned” by Indigenous peoples.

One chapter that stood out to me as rather odd was Asch’s thorough review of Tom Flanagan’s work, First Nations? Second thoughts (2nd ed) McGill-Queen’s University Press (September 2008). I found this chapter to be disjointed and distracting from the rest of Asch’s argument, due to a seemingly lack of relevance to his thesis. At the end of this chapter, Asch states that his goal of including the review is not to silence viewpoints, but rather to show that the author offers no compelling reason for Asch to abandon his own argument. Again, I found this to be confusing, as Asch only relies on the one author’s work to, essentially, not sway his own argument. He doesn’t even include sources to support his thesis. I submit that this makes his argument one sided and provides an incomplete argument and viewpoint for the reader to rely on.

Overall, I felt like Asch’s work was a bit out dated. Although published in 2014, I felt like I was reading a book from the 1960s or 1970s with how his argument was presented. The context of the book does not match what is currently happening in society today; such as with the Idle No More Movement, the TRC, the idea of nation-to-nation relationships, and reconciliation.

For Public Servants across Canada and in the Northwest Territories, this work does not assist them in understanding the history of Indigenous peoples and colonialism in Canada. Its one-sided view of treaties and aboriginal rights would, I argue, cause confusion within offices and in developing public policy. With reconciliation being the “it” word these days, and with governments working towards their own submissions on the TRC Calls to Action, Asch’s book does not assist Public Servants in achieving this goal. In a way, I feel like Asch’s book sets back these achievements, the work that governments are doing, and the new path that we are moving forward on together. ◉

This review was authored by CAITLIN BERESFORD, who is currently working as an Assistant Crown Attorney with the Durham Crown Office in Ontario. She also works as a sole practitioner, working in the area of Aboriginal Law, specifically land claims. This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IPAC.


Freeman, D. & Morris, S. (2016). The Forgotten People. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press

“If our institutions, our foundational document, can belatedly embrace indigenous Australians, would it not benefit us all?” (23).

Deeply rooted in the history of any country that has grown and developed through a practice of settler colonialism are disparities between rights of the Indigenous peoples and the colonizers, and, as such, there is much room for improvement to bring all citizens into the fold. In the modern era, for those countries committed to improving their nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous communities at least, the question becomes how to best move forward in a way that gives all residents a sense they are truly citizens, complete with all the rights and access as they should have been able to enjoy from the first moment when their homeland became a country.

But what is the solution? How do we decide which is the best way to move forward? What are the possible options?

Freeman and Morris’ book presents five possible options to give Indigenous Australians the rights and standing for which they have been fighting and clearly deserve. Instead of coming at the question from a purely academic perspective, Freeman and Morris approached individuals from several areas of Australian society – politics, academia, constitutional law, Indigenous rights – to discuss one of the possible paths forward.

The first two options – recognition and reconciliation – are simple to understand and represent important starting points for improving the relationship between Indigenous Australians and settlers. From there, the authors’ proposed options get a little more complicated. The more complex options they explore include a declaration and recognition of Indigenous Australians entrenched in the Constitution, the development of an Bill of Rights for Indigenous Australians, and even the establishment of an Indigenous advisory council to serve as a form of self-government for the Indigenous population. More than half of the book is dedicated primarily to discussing and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each option.

By the end of the book, the reader comes away with a better understanding of the possible options, as well as the inherent risks and benefits of each one presented. There is no clear front-runner out of the five, but that perhaps is the book’s greatest strength. The editors and contributors don’t claim to have the solution or even answers: they simply present several possible policy options, with arguments for and against each. They argue instead that there can be no one answer, making it clear in the introduction of the book that finding a solution should not be limited to any ideas included in this book, because there could be another possible option that was not addressed in The Forgotten People, and perhaps yet to be uncovered. Instead, in providing the information, this allows the reader to come to their own conclusions about what might be the best option for moving forward.

From a Canadian perspective, the different scenarios presented in The Forgotten People could be adapted to be implemented here in Canada. Although Canada’s situation is not completely identical to Australia’s, that nation, too, has a need to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians that is not very different than what has been taking place within our own context. Here in Canada, the arrival of British colonists represented a period of rapid expansion of the British Empire at the expense of Indigenous Canadians. These peoples had been willing to welcome the newcomers to their lands and had negotiated treaties in good faith, only to have those treaties ignored. As many of the contributors to this book mention in their essays, there must be reconciliation as well as the establishment of a new relationship between Indigenous Australians and the Crown: a subject of increasing focus within our own society, and one that only recently has begun to see any kind of progress.

In the foreword to The Forgotten People, Indigenous Australian lawyer Noel Pearson expresses hope, seeing this book as a step forward and an opportunity for more discussion about the rights of all Indigenous Australians. It does not represent the end but instead the beginning of the work that needs to be done on the road ahead. As a reader, this resonated for me, as I finished the book with a better understanding of the Australian context as to compares to Canada own struggles to move ahead, and feel that any reader walks away from this book with an opportunity to better understand how they see the road forward. In addition, it prepares readers to work to make that hope a reality by providing a stepping-off point for discussion and looking deeper into the possible options for resolution. In carefully analyzing each potential road through the eyes of respected individuals from all areas of policy development, the strengths and weaknesses – and in some cases the inherent pitfalls – of each option are brought to the forefront. This provides the reader a better understanding of exactly how each option would work within the Australian context, which readers can also consider in terms of the Canadian context.

For those people interested in examining policy options when it comes to Indigenous-settler relationships, The Forgotten People is definitely worth a read. ◉

This review was authored by ANNE-MARIE JENNINGS. Based in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, she currently works as the Registrar for Oil and Gas Rights in the Petroleum Resources Division with the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI). This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) NWT Regional Group. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IPAC. 

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