What about The Right to Be Cold?

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?

Video: Human Trauma and Climate Trauma As One 15:43
Sheila Watt-Cloutier at TEDxYYC

On change

We went from dog teams to rock ’n’ roll and miniskirts almost overnight.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Video Sheila Watt-Cloutier on Climate Change and Human Rights. 10:17
Nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 2007, alongside Al Gore.



  1. […] This is not a new point of division: in past years, other books have been dismissed because they were despairing (Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Anosh Irani’s The Song of Kahunsha, for instance, and more recently Sheila Watt-Clouthier’s The Right to Be Cold). […]

  2. […] In Week 1 (Oct 30 to Nov 3), take a look back at your year of nonfiction: (The titles below link to my thoughts on the book.) Jen Agg’s I Hear She’s a Real Bitch Richard Bowen’s Mei Mei Little Sister Commodore Ajith Boyagoda with Sunila Galappatti’s A Long Watch Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide Mazo de la Roche’s Ringing the Changes Shirin Ebadi’s Until We Are Free Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country Negin Farsad’s How to Make White People Laugh Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on the Road B. Denham Jolly’s In the Black Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll Be Dead and None of This Will Matter Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye John Lorinc, Ed (and others) How Toronto Got Queer Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Javiar Marias’ Written Lives Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road Clem and Olivier Martini’s The Unravelling James Maskalyk’s Life On the Ground Floor Sylvia Plath’s The Unabridged Journals (edited by Karen V. Kukil) Gregory Scofield’s Thunder Through My Veins Bev Sellar’s They Called Me Number One Drew Hayden Taylor’s Me Funny Marcelino Truong’s What a Lovely Little War (Trans. David Homel) Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook Craig Walzer, Ed. Out of Exile Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold […]

  3. The Reading Life September 30, 2017 at 7:58 am - Reply

    This sounds so powerful,

    • Buried In Print October 3, 2017 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      I still think back to aspects of this story, just moving through my everydaylife. Especially her thoughts on integrity and her determination.

  4. Naomi September 20, 2017 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    You’re right… even though she didn’t seem to intentionally be writing in a melancholy way, it made me sad to think about her leaving the Arctic, and just sad to know that this book was written because of the unpredictable/bleak future of her home.

    • Buried In Print October 3, 2017 at 12:51 pm - Reply

      I so completely enjoyed her stories about growing up in the community, especially the sense of family and belonging. Maybe that’s also why I found it so hard to read on, even after the first couple of chapters.

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'