Canada’s Arctic Council leadership gets mixed reviews

How are Canada's Arctic Council priorities resonating   in the world's circumpolar regions? (iStock)
How are Canada’s Arctic Council priorities resonating in the world’s circumpolar regions? (iStock)
Canada is now just over one year into its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

It assumed leadership of the circumpolar forum last May with an ambitious plan centred on northern development.

But now, at the mid-point of its mandate, Canada is getting mixed reviews from experts.

‘Development of the North for the people of the North’

The business focus of Canada’s Arctic Council mandate was welcomed in many of Canada’s northern communities when it took over from previous chair Sweden.

At the time, Terry Audla, president of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said it sent a positive signal to Northerners.

But elsewhere in the North, there were concerns that Canada saw the Council as a means to further its own northern strategy.

“I think northern communities in Canada are completely different from northern communities in Sweden or Finland or Norway,” said Kristofer Bergh, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2013 before Canada took over. “There’s a perception that a lot of the issues being brought forward will further Canadian development rather than Arctic development.”


Arctic Council Members:

Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, United States

Year formed: 1996

Current Chair (2013-1015): Canada

Next Chair (2015-2017): United States

Different realities

For many Arctic watchers, there’s been little done by Canada to counter this disconnect between its priorities and how it relates to northern regions outside of Canada.

“Scandinavian countries in particular have more infrastructure, their demographics are less indigenous and they have access to things like trees and other resources that simply aren’t available in the Canadian North,” says Whitney Lackenbauer, an Arctic expert and history professor at St. Jerome’s University in Canada’s University of Waterloo.

And like many of Russia’s Arctic regions, the northern economies are embedded in the national economies, he says.

“Russia generates a sizable percentage of its gross domestic product north of the Arctic Circle, so the idea that northern development should be treated as separate from national prosperity more generally also doesn’t resonate.”

Canada's Environment Minister, and Minister for the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Canada’s Environment Minister, and Minister for the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Is message getting through?

While many praise the work that’s being done at the Council by working groups and diplomats, there’s little indication Canada’s leadership is working to address the larger concerns about their overarching priorities.

“I think there may have been some arrogance on Canada’s part,” says Heather Exner-Pirot, editor of the Arctic Yearbook. “While I applaud the direction of going towards economic development, the issues are so different in the different Arctic regions.

“So far, I don’t think Canada has made the links between their priorities and the realities on the ground in the way a more sophisticated chairmanship could have.”

For in-depth coverage of the Arctic Council, visit Eye on the Arctic’s Special Section:


Arctic Economic Council

How Canada’s chairmanship is resonating in Arctic indigenous communities is hard to gauge at the mid-point.

Representatives of the Saami Council in Norway and Sweden didn’t respond to interview requests.

The offices of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska and Canada said no one was available to comment for this story before deadline.

(Both groups are permanent participants of the Arctic Council.)

But at least one Arctic region is cautiously optimistic about the business focus Canada is promoting.

Tromso, a city of about 70,000 people in Norway's Arctic. The economic and development needs of urban regions like this are very different from Canada's northern regions. (iStock)
Tromso, a city of about 70,000 people in Norway’s Arctic. The economic and development needs of urban regions like this are very different from in Canada’s Arctic where most communities number only a few hundred and are fly-in only. (iStock)

Timo Rautajoki, head of the Chamber of Commerce in Finland’s Arctic Lapland province, says there have been numerous attempts over the years to set up bodies like a circumpolar chamber of commerce. But that they’ve typically fizzled out over the long term.

He praises Canada for putting an Arctic Economic Council in place that would have businesses operating in the North report to the Arctic Council on economic issues.

But more details are still needed on how small and medium-size local businesses will be involved.

“From the Lapland point of view, the most important thing is that the Arctic Economic Council does not become a club of giant companies like Exxon and Gazprom and Rosneft,” he said. “It’s very important for all of us living in the Arctic area that our companies are involved in these big projects.”

Looking ahead

History professor Whitney Lackenbauer says the benefits of Canada’s council policies likely won’t be seen until after the chairmanship is passed to the United States in May 2015.

He says the real test of Canada’s success as Chair will likely be played out domestically.

“Our prime minster has made the Arctic such a clear legacy project and Minister Aglukkaq is in such an opportune position as Chair and being Inuk, that the challenge over the next year will be to have enough  politically saleable progress for this government to feel satisfied that it can convince Canadians that  it did everything it set out to do.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada boycotts Moscow Arctic Council meeting over Ukraine, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Ex-President Ahtisaari calls on Finland to join NATO with Sweden, Yle News

Greenland:  Greenland urged to work with Arctic Council, CBC News

Iceland:  Many questions, but few answers as Arctic conference gets underway in Iceland, Alaska Dispatch

Norway:   Permanent Arctic Council Secretariat opens in Tromso, strengthening Norway’s position in Arctic, Blog by Mia Bennett

Sweden: Feature Interview: Sweden wraps up Arctic Council, Radio Sweden

Russia:  Blog – Russia puts countries on edge in the Arctic, Cryopolitics

United States: U.S. participation in Arctic Council lacks coordination, follow-through: report, Alaska Dispatch

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."