There is a revolution going on at Makivik Corp. and her name is Sheila Watt Cloutier. Elected Corporate Secretary on March 31, Sheila is already planning big changes. She is honest, direct and has no use for the “games” and “political lingo” we sometimes see in organizations like hers.
The sister of Charlie Watt, she also isn’t shy about making a stand. “Sometimes in order for us to really make our stance, we have to be almost overassertive because our families, our parents, were underreactive,” she says.
Her passion is the Inuit youth. Despite the many problems the youth face, she finds they are full of hope and inspiration. “There is a real movement among (the youth) where the spirit is just going full force.” Sheila has a lot to say that is relevant to Crees too. Like many Cree parents, she wants Inuit kids to be taught their culture in all parts of the school curriculum, not just three times a week for 50 minutes.
Another concern: out of over 350 jobs at Inuit entities in Montreal, only 48 are held by Inuit people.
“I think we have to be not just building structures. We have to be building people. And that’s going to be key to our self-government.” The Nation: What was your election platform? Sheila Watt Cloutier: I had a few. The key ones I had were in the area of youth issues because that’s an area that’s pretty close to my domain. And it’s one I feel is one of the key elements in the situation of the high suicide rate and all the problems that are happening.
I think we really have to focus in on how we can help at the leadership level to get healing and empowerment going for the youth. Sixty per cent of our nation is under 25. They’re our upcoming leaders so we really have to work on making sure they’re going to be okay.
What can you do with the job you have now? The transfer just happened very recently, a couple of weeks ago. The department of youth and training used to fall under someone else’s responsibility (Mark T. Gordon, economic development), so I was kind of rallying to get that under me. Now I’ve got youth and training under my responsibility so I can promote ideas and programs and projects that are in line with the kind of things I talk about.
What are other aspects of your new job? I’m still carrying the education file, which I did even in the other position, but I didn’t want to let it go. (As Makivik’s education resource person, Sheila’s job was to monitor implementation of the recommendations of the Nunavik Educational Task Force.) I sit on a committee of 10 people from different organizations and we ensure that the changes are going to happen.
All too often, too many reports have been written, and then they sit on shelves and nothing gets implemented. So we didn’t want that happening to this situation. It’s too important So there’s education, youth and training…
And then there’s Avataq, our cultural institute, which is nice too because it kind of goes hand-in-hand with education. And some of the things I promote a lot is getting back to our roots and our culture. With our education system, (we should be) creating a foundation that is based on our culture, rather than adding it on to an existing system that we didn’t define.
What projects do you have in mind in terms of culture? I don’t have anything specific yet, but a lot of it would be through schools because schools are the place that handle the majority of our children on a daily basis. There should be a very strong curriculum where culture is interwoven in a very integrated and holistic way through all the subjects whether it be math, history, geography, whatever.
And not just as a culture class three times a week for 50 minutes. That just doesn’t work. It’s not effective at all and it almost becomes a joke because it just doesn’t do any effective empowering of the kids.
So all these things focus on the youth.
Yes, they are our future. We’ve got to get the youth going. Sixty per cent, that’s a big percentage. And having, as we know, the highest suicide rate in this country, and in Nunavik we even have the highest among all the other Native groups in Canada. And it wouldn’t be surprising at all if it were the highest in North America. If we’re losing them that quickly, then who are we planning self-government for? What reasons do you think there are for that problem? My understanding as an Inuk and I’ve gone through my own soul-searching as well as having worked in education with the youth and in the area of addictions as well— I would say it started from the time we gave away our powers. When we gave away our powers, we really thought these people coming in had all the answers. And in doing so we just lost every bit of our freedom skills. As a result of that, the social problems started to happen very quickly for us.
I mean things have changed dramatically. The first 10 years of my life we were still travelling by dog team. And then within afive-year span we were into ski-doos. And we’re not going back a long ways. We’ve got our guys now who didn’t have that kind of historical background in machinery and technology going off to Finland, guys from my hometown in fact. They’re racing high-tech machines and coming in second.
That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to harness. And we never saw arenas up until, what, 15 years ago, and yet our guys play like pros now and are beating Japan. It’s just awesome. That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to harness because I remember traditionally what we were like. We had that strength and resilience and resourcefulness and wisdom to survive any odds. Because if we didn’t have that strong traditional wisdom we would never have survived a day, much less all these thousands of years.
So it’s to be able to gain back those personal powers and solidify it with our cultural roots—empowering people and gaining back that self-esteem and making change so we can become drivers once again and not just the passenger.
Because we’ve just literally given the driver’s seat to somebody else and as a result just became very lost in the whole process.
How do you think it happened? Everything happened so quickly and we just gave away all that power thinking the other people had a better solution for us. And then what happens is when institutions take over like that we become more and more dependent, and we forget how to be independent.
And I don’t mean dependencies just from substances, but dependencies from the welfare system, the unemployment and it just goes on and on. And when you deplete your powers that way, you just don’t have that sense of self to begin with, and despair just sets in and addictions become worse and you don’t know how to get back out of that rut.
Do you think right now there’s a movement to change that which the youth are a part of? Absolutely. They are the ones I’ve been really impressed by these past two or three years in particular. Because there’s a lot of movement from the youth to say, okay, we’re not perfect, we’ve got problems of our own, but we see what has to get done and we’re trying to do something about it. There’s a lot of movement in that area. They’re getting youth committees going and now they’ve got the national committee going as well.
I was asked to speak at their conference in Kuujjuaq last November and I was very impressed. You would swear these guys had been at it for years. These guys had this huge conference, just like an ACM would be.
Everybody was there every day and they had something to say. And it was even nicer because they weren’t playing politics so much like the adult world does. They just came and said things straight from their hearts. And there was no real games being played. It was just call a spade a spade and let’s see what we can do to help.
So as much as I say the statistics are high and our young people are in a kind of victim state, a despairing state, there is a real movement among that group where the spirit is just going full force.
Do you think there’s changes that have to be made internally? Sure, lots. Because what happens is as the problems of our communities increase, these institutions have thrived. They’ve become bigger and bigger, with bigger funding, bigger personnel. It’s really interesting to see—they grow with the problem rather than alleviating the problem. So you get more and more social problems, more police, new court halls. And you’re thinking you can’t do that any more because that just doesn’t do anything to stop the problem. It just in fact will add to it.
So there has to be a whole different way to look at these things. And a whole different way of how can we help people break free? But you know there’s a problem with that in a sense, because it’s not always so easy to be free. There’s a lot of difficulty with that. Breaking free myself of various things in my life, I can really tell you with a lot of honesty it’s very hard to be free. You have to then be constantly responsible for your life. And you have to check in every single day with what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
It takes a lot of effort. Sometimes it’s easier for someone to look after you. So you have to get that motivation into people and these institutions, depending who’s really pulling the strings. Sometimes if they empower people it’s a conflict of interest Well, they’d be out of a job if all of us started to heal, you know? So you have to be pretty clear on your own issues of needing to be needed to begin with—to be able to say, well, I let go. It’s like children. I have a 19-year-old and an 18-year-old. It’s to be able to say, let go and let them be themselves. And that’s very difficult on parents.
I can imagine the paternalistic people who have looked after us in that way will naturally have that kind of struggle within themselves to let go and say, can these people really do it? Have you heard about any specific incidents to give an example? I can give you many examples, but I’m not going to give you any specific ones because we come across it all the time. It’s in every organization where Native people are, not just in Nunavik. You’ll find that in every organization that exists in the Aboriginal world, in the world.
It’s very common everywhere—that the minute there’s an energy coming in where people are starting to stand up on their own, there’s going to be a struggle.
It’s because the act of letting go, I think, is one of the toughest things that human beings go through. And that of course is for anybody, no matter what race you’re from, in any situation really, as a parent, as a spouse, as anything.
We easily gave up our powers—now it’s hard to take them back. But I think with time this will become easier for those trying to take it back and easier for those to let go. I have a lot of hope this will happen.
When we say we are trying to find our rightful place, we are not trying to say we have no room for you. But that has always been interpreted as being anti-qallunat or anti-non-Inuit, which is not the case.
But sometimes in order for us to really make our stance, we have to be almost over-assertive because our families, our parents, were underreactive. So as a result this generation almost has to overreact to gain that balance. It’s like when women who have never asserted themselves in their lives almost have to yell, scream, no, to get their point across.
So as Native peoples, I think we tend to sometimes do that, which is fine by me because it’s all a process. The benefits of doing so are much greater than a few people who will be hurt along the way. Because people have to own their own emotions. If they’re hurt in the process when our intention is just to gain our own ground, then you own that yourself because I’m working on my stuff.
A lot of the things you’re talking about you’ve drawn from your own experiences. What kind of things have you learned along the way? This journey you see is a journey into myself really. That’s what I am drawing on. And that helps me stay focused and focused on the right things, and not getting so caught up in other stuff that is just going to deplete me anyway.
I realize there are roadblocks but I try not to keep my focus on them. It’s hard. But I do it by going to aerobics three times a week and going to yoga and doing meditation (laughter)… I just came back from my class.
But that’s how I keep focused—trying to ensure that I’m caring for and nurturing myself in the process. My past has brought me to moving away from self-destructive patterns. I’ve been there. I’ve given up whatever I felt I was dependent on and whatever I felt was destroying me as a person.
What made you go into this line of work, working at Makivik for the people? You know the funny thing about some of this stuff is you don’t necessarily go out and seek it It seeks you. And when you’re open to that kind of thing, to finding your sense of purpose, you tend to draw that kind of stuff toward you.
Three years ago, I ran for elections (for corporate secretary) and didn’t win. It took a lot of reflection to give it another shot But I felt going into this position would give me more umph, more opportunity for those voices to be heard.
Because if you’re not elected, people sometimes tend not to give you as much voicing. I felt the voicing had to get done and I said this in my acceptance speech— it’s not just for those who are here today, but those who have left us who were not able to say what they had to say.
And I think all the more so at the leadership level. You know we tend to get very political, very administrative, very this and that, but we forget the whole human development aspect of things. And we talk political lingo, but if we don’t bring in that whole human development aspect, then we’re building some kind of an empty shell of a self-government I think we have to be not just building structures. We have to be building people. And that’s going to be key to our self-government.
Are there special issues you deal with because you are a woman? Is there an old-boys’ network? Sure there is. But most of these guys I’ve known all my life—Mark T, Jackie, Peter and myself, we’re all from the same community. We all grew up together. We’re very different today. We have different perspectives, we have different backgrounds. In our work we went into different fields. And we are different. Men and women are quite different in their perspectives many times.
I’m not intimidated by any means by the fact that there’s five males I’m working with. Yes, we have different perspectives, but I’m very direct and I’m very honest.
Where do you find the different perspectives? I think the different perspectives come in the way people have been working here for a long time. Just in the way they have tended to think. We’re not just a political body. We are a body that I think has to look at all these other issues.
In my first meeting, they were all talking about this business-oriented stuff. And Simeonie said to me, “You were so quiet.” He said, “I could just picture what was going through your head: ‘Oh shit, what did I get myself into.'”
I said, “You’re quite right I was thinking that at one point What have I gotten myself into?” But I said, “As much as I have to adjust to the stuff you guys are going to be putting on the table, you in turn will have to adjust to what I bring to your table now.” So it’s a two-way street.
So these are lot of new ideas you’re bringing in? Some have already started. I think especially this fall. I mean I’m only here two months. It’s in the fall that I intend to bring in some further changes. And I think they’ll be supportive.
With this position that I hold in particular, I’m in charge of personnel and administration.
Whereas these guys are very involved in politics. So I would see they would be very supportive with these changes because it’s not necessarily stuff they’ve had time to look at And hopefully they will see it positively that someone is spending time to look at these things which are very important to the Corporation.
What kinds of changes? Some of the things they know because that was my platform— the youth, I spoke a little bit about leadership, the self-government plans.
But I’m going to be promoting a lot now the preparation of our own Inuit staff to ensure they’re being trained, to ensure they’re moving on and being challenged, and that their potential is being worked at so they can move on into other positions within the Corporation. And to be sure this is an Inuk Corporation. We should be promoting that from day one and ensuring that many positions are being filled more and more by Inuit.
What is the ratio right now? Out of 350 or 380 jobs that are held in Montreal, these are Nunavik organizations that are here—Kativik School Board, Makivik, TNI, perhaps the Co-op Federation—there’s like 48 Inuit You know? So the picture is not so great But then again, the very fact that these organizations are in the south is kind of, uh…
Is that another change you want to make? Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I want to start looking at that whole relocation file. And again that’s under my responsibility as well. For me, I understand the reasons behind people remaining here, for financial reasons and so on. But I think we have to think long-term much more than that.
I mean you say the cost of relocating is going to be incredibly high. But what about the cost of unemployment? What about the cost of the social problems and the health problems and the education problems and all of those things? Not to mention thecost of the many lives we lose every year.
That’s what I mean. We start to sort of enable the problem, we start to almost add to the problem, rather than thinking very deeply and creatively about how we can get some of these things going for our people.
And 380 jobs. We sure can use that in Nunavik. We have high unemployment rates. Inuit can be trained to fill most of these positions. More and more of our kids are going to CEGEP and so on.
It’s no wonder 48 in a sense because not everybody wants to live in Montreal. I know a lot of people who are able to do some of this fine work, but they are up north and they don’t want to relocate here. Because in the next couple of years I may wish to go back up myself when my kids are grown. But if I decide to go, I won’t go alone. I’ll bring a department with me or something (laughter)…
But we need housing, we need office space. None of that exists and we have to start planning all of that.