Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s story of protecting her Inuit culture is fraught and complicated. Many times, I had to set it aside, the core of my being all-a-shudder. In the past, this setting-aside was longer lasting.
This is a book I have had trouble leaving between the covers. Ultimately, I read at the table, in silence, chapter-by-chapter, my bookmark pulled beneath each line of text as I read.
In hindsight, I wonder at this. Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s tone is not despairing. Nor is the content relentlessly grim.
But there is a shadow across her memories of earlier times. For instance, when she was young and told that she had been selected to attend school in the south, she recalls her excitement. But she also wonders at it, because now, with an adult’s understanding of what it meant to be cut off from her family and culture at such a young age, the thrill recedes.
“Although I really had no idea what this all meant, I was excited at the prospect of a new adventure. It would, however, turn out to be the end of my Arctic childhood of ice and snow. And it would mark the beginning of a series of losses that I would struggle with into adulthood.” The pain of being severed from her mother, grandmother and siblings reverberated throughout her life.
When she recalls her experiences at residential school, the Churchill Vocational School, they are mainly positive. Nonetheless,she recognises later that we “were being deprogrammed from our Inuit culture and reprogrammed for the southern world”.
This process of cultural genocide has been described by other native writers, in fiction and nonfiction, and collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well. But it wasn’t until I heard Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on “The Next Chapter” that I learned about the massacre of the community’s sled dogs. Over 1,200 dogs were slaughtered by RCMP officers and government officials.
Not only did this deprive communities of their livelihood (as hunters) and transportation, but it devastated families emotionally. Stories of alcoholism and addiction, stories of suicide: the narratives change dramatically after this travesty.
Simultaneously this event made reading this book both impossible and necessary. This was a layer to the injustices experienced by indigenous peoples which was new to me. The author herself did not fully understand it at the time either.
“I was so preoccupied with avoiding the new noisy machines (even asking my mother to walk with me to events at night so I wouldn’t be run over by them), as well as with my teenage priorities, that I failed to really question what had happened to the dogs. In fact, it wasn’t until I was working as an adult at Makivik Corporation that the story started to unfold. So horrific was this story, and the wounds caused by it so deep, that no one spoke about it for years. But as I would discover, it was just one of many tragedies to befall my community.”
These tragedies propell Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an introvert, into positions of leadership, locally and globally. The political aspects of her transformation will primarily interest those with particular interest in human rights and development issues; other readers may be slowed by the detailed descriptions of specific congresses and gatherings and the careful attention paid to nomenclature (acryonyms abound!) or choose to skim those summaries.
For activists in this or related fields, these details do matter. And, because this is a fight still underway, it is particularly important to represent this information accurately.
However, any reader can appreciate what these details say about the author, about the concern demonstrated in her efforts to represent matters truthfully and thoroughly and, also, her capacity to recognise the complexity of systems and the need for solutions which consider both a bird’s-eye-view and ground-level experiences.
Who attended a particular summit and what was specifically discussed will not interest everybody. I imagine this was a real sticking point for the members of the 2017 Canada Reads panel who debated whether this was a book which all Canadians should read. But the state of our planet should be a concern for every inhabitant of it, and there is much to be learned from Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right To Be Cold.
Her thoughts on leadership summarize the way in which details about a particular political position reflect much deeper matters, the ways in which we can learn from things which seem far removed from our personal experiences.
“Leadership…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. That ‘checking inward’ and the personal growth that accompanies such introspection have been, I believe, instrumental to my own ability to succeed.”
There are parts of this book which will make you shiver. (Also, in a good way, as with her story about meeting Nelson Mandela.)
And that’s just the kind of reading that can galvanize us into action.
Have you read this book? Have you had a similar reading experience?