We are honoring Siila Watt-Cloutier with the 2022 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Ricoh Canada, for her outstanding contributions as a defender of the environment, culture and human rights. Born in a small town in northern Quebec, she entered the residential school system when she was 12 years old, which ignited her desire to help others and be of service to her community. She began her career in the Nunavik education system and eventually became a voice for Inuit rights on the world stage, highlighting the ramifications of climate change on communities.
By Sarah Kelsey | Illustration by Tess Goris @tessalexandra.art
“There is always reason to hope,” says Siila Watt-Cloutier, when asked about the current state of the world. “The pandemic is teaching us to do things differently, that is positive.”
As an Inuit leader and one of the world’s most recognized human and environmental rights defenders, Siila has spent her career highlighting the ramifications of global climate change on communities, especially for indigenous peoples. She has encouraged leaders and individuals to assess how their policies and actions have impacted their citizens. She says the COVID-19 pandemic has given everyone the reality check needed to realize that the way we do things, whether in business or culturally, needs to change.
“The pandemic is opening hearts and souls to find solutions to face climate change; it has exposed the unresolved issues of racism in indigenous and black communities,” says Siila. “We are in a space where we need to address these issues as we are all connected. A change is coming, and there is hope in that.”
The road to the Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
Pronounced see-la in Inuktitut and she-la in English, Siila was born in Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, a former Hudson Bay outpost formerly known as Old Fort Chimo, and raised by her mother. and her grandmother, two “remarkable women who overcame incredible challenges to care for and feed their families.”
Until the age of 10, he lived a traditional Inuit way of life, traveling on dog sleds and learning from his elders the importance of community, culture and respect for nature. The Canadian government then sent her to various places, landing first in Nova Scotia with a family when she was 10, then in Churchill, Manitoba at a residential school at the age of twelve, and then in Ottawa for high school.
It was around this time that Siila began to feel an attraction to helping people. “The government-run residential school system was difficult and we were 200 Inuit children together,” she says. “I had to become a model for survival, so I drew my strength from what I learned from my grandmother and mother. I wanted to help others and be of service to my community.”
With no math or science, and more an introvert than an extrovert, she returned to her hometown when she was 18 and began a career in education, first at the Kuujjuaq health centers as an interpreter and then at the Kativik School Board, an institution that runs education to 14 Nunavik communities in Quebec and incorporating Inuit culture, language and values.
“When I returned to Quebec, I began to witness firsthand the dramatic changes that were occurring within Inuit communities, the addictions that had begun to take hold, and the breakdown of traditions,” says Siila. “There was so much going on and so many issues not being addressed, especially for our youth.”
She had never wanted to get involved in politics, seeing it more as her brother’s (Charlie Watt, former Canadian senator from Nunavik who spent 34 years in office) field, “but I realized that if I put myself in a leadership role , could help. .”
“I had to become a model for survival, so I drew my strength from what I learned from my grandmother and mother. I wanted to be of service to my community.”
She began looking for opportunities to leverage her knowledge of the education systems in Quebec on a larger scale, which led her to work as an Inuk advisor to the Nunavik Education Task Force. It was there that she and her colleagues produced a document with 101 recommendations for change called “The Pathway to Wisdom.” When she was elected to the Makivik Corporation in 1995, she focused on how she could help guide young people and produced a video called Capturing Spirit: The Inuit Journey. Both highlighted the extraordinarily rapid decline of Inuit Society and the weaknesses of education systems in Inuit communities to support youth and individuals through such tumultuous change.
It was that work that ultimately led her to move beyond regional politics and led to her being chosen to lead the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a body representing approximately 165,000 Inuit in the Arctic, predominantly located in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia. After 7 years in office, she was elected President of the ICC, leading the four countries for four years. Her previous role with Makivik had put her in a position to advocate for Inuit rights regionally and nationally, while ICC’s role made her “the advocate and protector” of those rights internationally.
“Almost overnight I became the spokesperson for Inuit around the world,” Siila says, and it wasn’t just education issues she was dealing with. “I entered the organizations at a time when a lot of work and research was being done on the impact of pollutants and toxins on the health of communities. These contaminants, carried through weather patterns from afar, were contaminating the Arctic food chain and accumulating in the bodies and breast milk of our Inuit mothers. Climate change was also affecting an individual’s ability to hunt safely.”
Empowered by what she calls her “maternal instinct to protect what I love,” Siila gave voice to this issue on the world stage and went on to play a pivotal role in the United Nations negotiations that banned the use of Persistent Organic Pollutants ( commonly known as POP, such as PCP and DTT). In 2007, while chairing the ICC, he initiated the first legal action linking climate change to human rights, particularly in the Inuit context. Her book on the subject titled The right to be cold (translated into French, the right to cold) is internationally renowned.
Today, Siila is considered one of the world’s leading defenders of Arctic Inuit rights. For her work, she has won and been nominated for dozens of awards, including a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nomination alongside Al Gore. She became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006, received the Right to Livelihood Award in 2015, and has been recognized as a Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme. Siila has also received many honorary doctorates from universities in Canada and one from the United States.
A leader to learn from.
How does someone who never wanted a career in politics or on the international stage manage to step into the spotlight?
“I had remarkable face-to-face help in the absence of being able to be close to my elders. I was also able to tap into the strength that I had to develop as a child,” she says. “I had to do a lot of healing. I had to get to a place that would allow me to honor the fact that I was put in the places that I had been, so that I could learn to thrive.”
As an introvert, Siila gives herself time to prepare for big events and some space to recover from them when they’re over. (For any interested introvert, Siila recommends the book Calm by Susan Cain.)
She says it’s vital for leaders, regardless of their industry or their daily schedules, to discern what their weaknesses and strengths are so they learn to take advantage of each one. Understanding what might trigger an emotional response can help prepare one for a scary but important task that needs to be accomplished. “No one can lead from fear,” she adds.
Perspective is also key. “For me, leadership means never losing sight of the fact that the problems at hand are much bigger than yourself. It’s about clarity, focus and looking inward to lead strong. You should never project your own limitations onto others.”
Siila believes that personal transformation is an absolutely critical component to anyone’s growth as a leader.
“For me, leadership means never losing sight of the fact that the problems at hand are much bigger than yourself. It’s about clarity, focus and looking inward to lead strong. You should never project your own limitations onto others.”
“I am a firm believer in personal transformation as the way forward,” says Siila. “One of my favorite quotes is from Marianne Williamson: ‘Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we advance, so the world advances, because the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately personal. If we want to create change, we have to look within ourselves.”
It is also important to remember that growth is continuous. Once you feel like you’ve mastered a task, there will always be something else to get through. Resilience is key.
“Growth, transformation, is a continuous process. I am still learning about the challenges that life throws at me. I feel very blessed to have had a lot of freedom to trust within my own world.”
The way to follow.
Before the pandemic hit, Siila says she was busier than ever, traveling the world speaking about the trifecta of climate change, health and human rights, in large part because world leaders and citizens were finally starting to see the connection between the melting polar caps. and the disruption of the way we live. Now, however, much of that in-person advocacy has come to a halt because the current focus is on beating the pandemic, not saving the environment. Still, Siila continues to write articles on the subject, conduct webinars, and give TED Talks.
“My focus now is to continue to humanize climate change. It is understanding pieces on a human scale and our history and the consequences of our actions that will help us see that trauma, both human and planetary, are one in the same… we are a family.”
Siila has also moved into a new leadership training space, with the goal of getting them to present themselves more authentically on their teams, whether they work in politics or business. She is currently writing a book on heart-centered leadership and giving motivational talks to organizations. Her goal is to help those in a position of power envision a new path forward, one that is intentional and draws on the indigenous wisdom she grew up with.
“We are discovering in the Inuit world that the solutions to our problems, to address trauma and health and social issues, lie very close to home and within ourselves,” she says. “The world looking for a better and more sustainable way, the indigenous belief that we are all connected, is the medicine the world is looking for. If we can address our problems in this way, we can go a long way toward solutions.”
She adds that there has never been a better time to imagine and believe in a better and brighter future.
“It is a moment of great pause and a change of great perspectives. A new way of doing things is coming”.