When the Canada Reads shortlist was announced this year, it struck me (and many others) as odd that there was a non-fiction selection among them. How can the merits of a non-fiction selection be weighed alongside fiction?
Nonetheless, the non-fiction title (The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, The Arctic and the Whole Planet) was one of only two titles that I even wanted to read. (The other was Katherena Vermette’s The Break and I don’t even want to talk about how that book was treated during the debates. READ IT)
Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right To Be Cold is part memoir, part manifesto. The first half of the memoir, about her life growing up in the Arctic and the traditions of her Inuit culture, I loved. Her home, her traditions, her culture, her language, her family – all were written about with such love while pointing out that their way of life was being threatened by the warming of the Earth.
She writes quite plainly:
The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.
We are all accustomed to the dire metaphors used to evoke the havoc of climate change, but in many parts of the Arctic, the metaphors have already become a very literal reality. For a number of reasons, the planet warms several times faster at the poles. While climate experts warn that an increase of two degrees in the global average temperature is the threshold of disaster, in the Arctic we have already seen nearly double that.
Part of the issue, of course, is that those sounding the alarm are not the “right” kind of people. They are those citizens that have been taken advantage of, that have been robbed of their culture, forced into educational institutions that separated them from their families and did their own kind of damage. Although not the focus of the book, Watt-Cloutier does touch on this aspect of it. Those citizens that have been suppressed and abused are now charged with righting the wrongs of the rest of us.
And so, as her people’s way of life became threatened, as new generations were being robbed of the necessary environment to practice essential skills, as the habitats of animals necessary to sustain life in the Arctic became increasingly endangered, Watt-Cloutier saw that she would need to take a stand.
And that leads to the manifesto/memoir overlap of the book that kind of lost me. Undoubtedly her work is so very important and fundamental to the future of her people and the entire planet. But in writing about it, she relies on the retelling of political process, of the meetings she had, speeches she heard and gave, of those she met whose minds she changed.
It was all so dry.
Which is a shame because I do think that this is an important book for people to read, to understand just how precarious our situation is when it comes to climate change. It has already had very real implications for people right now.
I so appreciate Sheila Watt-Cloutier and the work she has done. I just wish that she had been able to leave out the process and focus on what needs to happen. Or spend more time on shocking people into that state of things as they are, and how much damage we have already done.
Canada Reads has come and gone by now and though I still think it was weird to add a non-fiction book to the party, there’s enough in The Right To Be Cold to make it worth your while. We can’t really afford to pretend this isn’t a serious problem.