“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there.
By Jean François Arteau
For this edition of our series, “People of the North,” we had the chance to meet with Charlie Watt Jr. Charlie and his wife Christine are the founders and owners of Avataa Explorations & Logistics Inc., a company that works to establish economic development for the Inuit in their region.
The couple strives to provide quality service and has, in the past, provided services to the Kativik Regional Government during the development of Torngat Mountains National Park and Pingualuit National Park. They were also recently invited by the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle to present to international experts and students on how to do business in the Great North.
Here, Charlie Watt Jr. shares with us his views on the Arctic environment and the role of the North in an evolving world.
KESSERWAN ARTEAU: What do you call your North?
CHARLIE WATT: I simply call the North my home. This is where I was born and raised and it is certainly the territory connected to my identity.
KA: Where is your North?
CW: My North as I understand and live it is Kuujjuaq, an important regional community located in Nunavik. Nunavik is the northern region of the province of Quebec in Canada. Kuujjuaq has a population of approximately 2,800, whereas Nunavik has about 13,000 inhabitants. Inuit represent more than 95 percent of the whole population of my region.
KA: What is in your North?
CW: My North is a place where there is wildlife and a pristine environment. It is not only a territory, but also what defines me, in a way: Our territory is part of our identity. Even though we have a modern life and use modern technologies and commodities, what I cherish the most about my North are the environment and the wildlife. To me, nothing matters more than these two elements.
KA: Who lives in your North?
CW: Mostly my people, the Inuit. Of course, our history has shown that we are open to other cultures and we welcome those who are adventurous enough to live in cold climates, enjoy fresh air, spectacular scenery, northern lights, wildlife, etc. We call them “Qallunat” (meaning eyebrow and “big belly”). I am proud of my people and of what we have accomplished so far in terms of development, but also of our ability to keep in line with our identity and traditions. Our language, Inuktituk, is one of the most aboriginal spoken languages in the country.
KA: How does coming from the North make you different?
CW: My heritage is a huge part of who I am. I am proud of my ancestors; they survived in some of the toughest climates in the world with very little, and they were happy. When I go out on the land with bare essentials, it makes me appreciate the simple things like the heat from our stove in the tent, our hunts for food, and especially my family. My heritage makes me feel at home. I would not live anywhere else than in my North.
KA: What is the most beautiful thing about your North?
CW: Without hesitation, I would say my people and their kind nature. Inuit are always willing to help, especially in times of need. Also, I have to mention our spectacular northern lights and sunrises. My North is my breath of fresh air. I feel at peace when I am in the North, it is where I truly feel at home.
KA: What do you do?
CW: I run, with my wife, a small start-up business in the North of which I am particularly proud. Our business is called Avataa, an Inuttitut word that means “surroundings” in English.
Avataa Explorations & Logistics Inc. was founded in 2011 on the basis of the Quebec government’s Plan Nord (“the North Plan”), which encourages exploration of the unexploited region of Nunavik and outlines potential economic benefits to the Inuit. Avataa was created to provide logistical and camp management services to mining, exploration, and geological companies drawn to the region and its resources. Our intention is to create awareness in the mining and exploration industry of the people and culture that live the region and our mission is to increase positive economic impacts for the Inuit who live in Nunavik by creating training, employment, and economic development opportunities. We are also involved in community, social, educational, and cultural activities with youth as part of our corporate social responsibility.
KA: What would you like the world to know about your North?
CW: I would like the world to know that the North is home to a proud, simple culture that has survived for many centuries only because of its respect and oneness with nature. The rest of the world must understand they too need the North and that we all must act to sustain a balance by adopting healthy environmental practices if we want to continue living at home on Earth.
KA: Can you name a few misconceptions about your North?
CW: I think the best answer I can provide is to paraphrase former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), Sheila Watt-Cloutier: “The North is not only home to polar bears, it is home to humans, too, all human.”
[Interviewer’s note: Sheila Watt-Cloutier tackles the many issues indigenous peoples are facing today, including environmental pollution and sustainable development. The ICC represents the international interests of Inuit residents in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Chukotka in the Far East of the Russian Federation. Through a climate change-based human rights petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Watt-Cloutier works to preserve Inuit culture against global warming and its impact on hunting.]
KA: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
CW: Semi-retired and spending most of my time at my Char fishing camp with my wife Christine, my two boys, and hopefully with my future grandchildren, my dog team, living the simple life … and maybe doing some traveling.
KA: Where do you see your North in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years?
CW: I see the North as it is right now in the present. I am hopeful that humans will continue to adopt alternative energy solutions and practice responsible natural resource development, while at the same time reducing dependency on these resources. I am confident in our future and I simply hope for the best for my people.
KA: What are your hopes and fears for the future?
CW: My hope is that we learn from the mistakes that we have made and that we take corrective actions for the sake of our environment and our future. I am optimistic that we will take responsibility and I will not live in fear. I know certain countries are in denial about global warming, but I am hopeful that these misconceptions will not determine the outlook for our North, or for our Planet.
You can view an interview with conducted with Charlie Watt Jr. which took place as a part of the University of Washington Arctic and International Relations Video Series here:
Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.
Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.
[Photos courtesy of Pixabay and Charlie Watt]