Early Life and Education
Charlie Watt was born into an Inuit family in Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq), Québec. His mother was Daisy Watt (1921–2002), a healer and interpreter who became a well-respected Inuit elder. His sister, Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a political leader, author and environmental and Indigenous rights activist.
Throughout his life, Watt attended schools across Canada: in the Northwest Territories (Yellowknife), Ontario (Kingston and Ottawa), Québec (Montréal and Kuujjuaq), Nova Scotia (Halifax) and Manitoba (Brandon).
From 1969 to1972, Charlie Watt worked as a northern officer with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada). In 1972, he founded the Northern Québec Inuit Association (NQIA), an organization to protect the political and economic interests of the Inuit in Northern Québec. Opposed to the James Bay hydroelectric project — which Inuit and Cree peoples argued threatened their lands and ways of life — Watt served as a negotiator for the final settlement, which was signed in 1975. Considered the first modern-day treaty, the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement provided $90 million in compensation. Watt served as the president of the NQIA until 1978. In that year, Watt became the founding president of Makivik Corporation (1978–82) — the NQIA’s successor organization, which administers the land settlement and seeks to politically and economically develop the Nunavik region. He served as its treasurer from 1987 to 1988 and again as president from 1988 to 1994.
Watt also established the Labrador Inuit Association in 1973, an organization that filed a land claim with the federal government in 1977, seeking to gain rights to territory in Labrador. On 22 January 2005, an agreement was signed that accorded the Inuit of Labrador 72,520 km2 of land and 48,690 km2 of sea. Nunatsiavut self-governs that territory today.
Watt was involved in the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, particularly with regards to Section 35, which enshrines Indigenous rights.
Throughout his career in politics and public service, Watt has served on various Indigenous organizations, including as co-chair of the Inuit Committee on National Issues (1979–84), as a member of the Nunavik Constitutional Committee (1985–95) and as a board member of the Inuit Tapirisat Kanatami (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) (1988–94). He has also been involved with parliamentary groups such as the Canada-Mexico Parliamentary Association and the Canada-Russia Parliamentary Group.
Watt has always actively supported and protected Indigenous rights. In 2002, for example, Watt refused to support a bill on gun control, arguing that it overlooked socioeconomic realities in Inuit communities that would make it difficult for some gun owners to comply with the new registration regulations. He has also spoken out against Québec language laws that favour French over Inuktitut. (See also Québec Language Policy).
Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau appointed Charlie Watt to the Senate in December 1983, and Watt was sworn in the following month. Representing Québec and the senatorial division of Inkerman, Watt served as chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples from February 1977 to October 2000. He is currently a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans and the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.
In 1990, when Charlie Watt was president of the Makivik Corporation, the organization purchased First Air. It is now Canada’s third-largest air carrier, according to Makivik. Watt also served as president of Air Inuit Ltd. — Canada’s first Indigenous-owned airline — from 1988 to 1994.
Watt has served as chairman of various companies, including Seaku Fisheries (1988–94), Uttuulik Leasing (1988–94) and Kigaq Travel (1988–94).
In 2012, Charlie Watt launched the Charlie Watt Foundation — now called the Tukia Foundation — to provide health and socioeconomic assistance to Inuit communities in Canada. Supporting self-determination, the foundation works from within Inuit communities to promote and protect Inuit language and culture, as well as to provide housing, development and education.
Watt is married to Ida (Epoo) and is father to five: Donald, Robert, Lisa, Billy and Charlene. He resides in Kuujjuaq. When he is not at work, Watt enjoys hunting, fishing and raising dog teams.
Awards and Honours
In 1994, Charlie Watt became an Officer of the National Order of Québec. Three years later, he was awarded the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire Award) for his role in bettering the lives of the people of Nunavik. He also received the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals in 2002 and 2012, respectively.