Canada focuses on development at Arctic Council; experts fear wrong approach

Ulukhaktok, a predominantly Inuit community of approximately 400 people in Canada's Northwest Territories. What will Canada's Arctic Council leadership mean for northern residents? Photo: Eilís Quinn, Radio Canada International. Canada will use its two years as leader of the circumpolar world to promote development and defend its policies, suggest federal politicians and documents.

But Arctic experts and those involved with the Arctic Council worry that’s the wrong approach at a time when the diplomatic body is dealing with crucial international issues from climate change to a treaty on oil spill prevention.

The Arctic Council consists of the eight countries that ring the North Pole and also has participation from aboriginal groups.

It has evolved since its 1996 birth in Ottawa from a research forum and diplomatic talking shop to a body that negotiates binding international treaties, such as last year’s deal on Arctic search and rescue.

Canada takes over in May

The chairmanship rotates every two years and Canada’s next turn as leader begins in May. It takes over as the council nears completion of a treaty on oil spill prevention and as concerns grow over the regulation of possible Arctic fisheries and increased shipping in northern waters as ice levels decline.

“The issues have just escalated when you look at what’s happening now with climate change,” said Mary Simon, one of the negotiators of the agreement that created the council and a former Canadian ambassador for circumpolar affairs.

“Even the predictions that were (made) two years ago are way out. The Arctic is being looked at very differently by nations — not just the eight that make up the Arctic Council, but other nations such as China and Japan.”

Think-tanks including the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program and the Rideau Institute have urged an agenda that gets out in front of emerging issues. They’ve suggested that Canada could promote the protection of Arctic fisheries, the reduction of so-called black carbon — or soot — that accelerates the loss of sea ice and the adoption of mandatory safety standards for Arctic shipping.

“All of the issues are pressing,” said Michael Byers, a professor of international law and an Arctic expert at the University of British Columbia. “Nobody can afford for the Canadian chair to sit on our hands for two years.”

Evaluating priorities

But a discussion paper circulated at meetings held across the North to gather input suggests that Canada’s top priority will be development.

“The development of natural resources in a sustainable manner, in which northerners participate and benefit, is central to the economic future of the circumpolar region,” says the paper. “Arctic Council initiatives could be built around and support Canada’s priorities to increase investment and development in the northern resource sector.”

The paper also mentions the need for “responsible and safe” Arctic shipping.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who will represent Canada on the council, says it’s also a good chance to correct international misconceptions.

“When you hear environmental research studies, ban this or ban that, it does not reflect what regimes we put in place to protect the environment we live in,” she says. “It’s a real opportunity for people on the ground in the North to tell the world what we’re doing.

“How do we use the opportunity of this chairmanship to bring our issues forward, to reach out to other countries that have impacted our way of life without ever setting foot (here)?

“The northern folks … see it as an opportunity to open trade, tourism, what have you, during our chairmanship and I’m in agreement with this.”

That may be too narrow an approach, warns Byers.

“The Canadian government needs to do a better job of communicating its Arctic policies, (but) the role of the Arctic Council chair is not to act as a public relations officer for any one country.

“It’s to harness the collective capacities of the member states and indigenous peoples to get important things done that can’t be accomplished by individual countries acting alone.”

Arctic historian and analyst Whitney Lackenbauer of the University of Waterloo says Canada should take a broader view.

“There are some best practices that do come from Canada and in some cases they aren’t well known.

“(But) as a chair of the Arctic Council, I hope that our goal is not primarily to trumpet our nation’s successes. This has got to be bigger than Canada.”

Lackenbauer says Canada is still seen in some countries as a nation intent on militarizing the North, in part because of the Harper government’s aggressive “use it or lose it” rhetoric on Arctic sovereignty.

“That’s still readily associated with Canada.”

Food security

Duane Smith of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which sits as a permanent participant on the council, says his group hopes Canada will promote discussions on subjects such as food security — not just in the context of poverty, but also in relation to the ability to hunt and maintain traditional food sources in the face of a changing Arctic climate.

“I don’t mean food security from the grocery store, but sustainable ecosystems that the Inuit rely and depend on.”

Canada will have a few sticky issues left over from Sweden’s term as chair, most notably how to deal with non-Arctic states looking for a window into the council’s deliberations. Aglukkaq says Canada has agreed to consider under what conditions applications from entities such as the European Union or China should be considered.

Aglukkaq, an Inuk herself, promises that northern people will be at the heart of Canada’s chairmanship.

“The overarching theme that I presented was putting northerners first — development for the people of the North.”

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