Blog: Arctic Council – from looking out to looking in

United States Secretary of State John Kerry, centre, and Leona Aglukkaq, Canadian Minister for the Arctic Council, right, chat with a traditional Inuit drummer while attending the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting Friday, April 24, 2015 in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
United States Secretary of State John Kerry, centre, and Leona Aglukkaq, Canadian Minister for the Arctic Council, right, chat with a traditional Inuit drummer while attending the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting Friday, April 24, 2015 in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
Last Friday, the ninth ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council conference took place in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada.

The Canadian hosts recapped their two-year chairmanship before passing the torch to their Arctic neighbor, the United States, which will chair the leading intergovernmental organization in the circumpolar north. As the first entry in a two-part series on the Iqaluit ministerial, I’ll first look back to compare this year’s ministerial meeting with the previous one in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2013. In my second entry, I’ll consider what the American chairmanship promises to hold over the next two years.

Shifting gazes

At the 2013 Kiruna ministerial, much of the attention focused on actors outside the Arctic. In the lead-up to the spring meeting, five Asian countries, Italy, the European Union, and even a number of non-profit organizations made their case for being observers to the Arctic Council. Ultimately, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Italy were successful, while the EU’s saga is still ongoing.*

Geography is one reason why Sweden may have taken a more global perspective of the Arctic. Unlike Canada, Sweden is not an Arctic coastal state since it is hemmed in by Norway to its north. Without a shoreline on the Arctic Ocean, Sweden is arguably less drawn to the concept of the Arctic Ocean as a “Polar Mediterranean. Trans-Arctic shipping routes would not directly benefit Sweden, whose ports all lie on the Gulf of Bothnia or the Baltic Sea. Thus, Sweden is more likely to look south to the rest of the world even when it is thinking about Arctic development. The mining town of Kiruna, for instance, has been connected to other Swedish cities by rail since 1899. The rest of the world has been rather close at hand for over a century, whereas the only way to get from Iqaluit to the south is by boat or plane.

So for Canada’s Arctic, the world beyond the north still seems distant. No railroads crisscross the three territories that comprise the Canadian Arctic. As this map shows, there are only a handful of all-weather highway in the Canadian Arctic, most famously the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories (which is currently being extended to Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet on the Arctic Ocean). During its two-year chairmanship, Canada’s rhetoric has made it seem that the key to improving the livelihoods of people in this remote and sparsely populated region is not by currying favor with non-Arctic stakeholders, but rather by charging ahead with “development for the people of the North.”

More than geography motivated the Arctic Council’s regional rather than global focus over the past two years. The strength of Canada’s indigenous peoples in both numbers and political clout did, too. Sweden has an indigenous Sami population with an official organization, the Saami Council, but it is not as powerful of a domestic or even circumpolar political force as Canada’s indigenous peoples’ organizations. In fact, three of the Arctic Council’s six permanent participants have their roots in Canada. Furthermore, whereas the chair of the Arctic Council was Leona Aglukkaq, a politician of Inuit descent, Sweden did not appoint a Sami as chair during its tenure.

In essence, the Canadian chairmanship shifted the gaze of the Arctic Council inwards and towards maritime and telecommunications issues. This can be read as a symbolic attempt by Canada to demonstrate power over the sea and the country’s vast distances. The Iqaluit Declaration notes the member states’ approval of the “Framework for a Pan-Arctic Network of Marine Protected Areas” and the “Arctic Marine Strategic Plan for the period 2015-2025 as a framework to protect Arctic marine and coastal ecosystems and to promote sustainable development in the region.” Canada has used environmental measures for geostrategic aims before, as it did with the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act in 1970.

Regarding telecommunications, the declaration notes the Council’s decision to “develop a circumpolar infrastructure assessment as a first step in exploring ways to improve telecommunications in the Arctic, and report to Ministers in 2017.” With improved internet speed thanks to planned subsea cable projects like Arctic Fibre, residents in the Canadian North may one day be better able to do things like take courses online or speak to a doctor over Skype without having to leave home.

Of visions and declarations

One of the major documents to emerge from each ministerial is a declaration named after the location of the meeting. Each declaration is signed by a representative from each of the Arctic Council member states, meaning that all agree to its contents in principle. At the broader scale, declarations tend to be fairly steady from one ministerial to the next. Dig a little deeper, and differences that speak to each chair’s particular agenda begin to emerge.

The preambles of the 2013 Kiruna Declaration (PDF) and the 2015 Iqaluit Declaration (PDF) were broadly similar. Each emphasized the importance of peace and cooperation, sustainable development, the Arctic’s diversity and the importance of its indigenous peoples, concern for global greenhouse gas emissions, and the Arctic Council’s progress in responding to “challenges and opportunities.” The Iqaluit Declaration’s preamble honed in on the specifics of tackling climate change by recognizing the importance of reaching an international climate agreement in Paris in December 2015 and stating the council’s determination to limit global average temperature increase to 2C.

After the preamble, however, the two declarations diverge significantly, reflecting the aforementioned difference in perspectives between the Swedish and Canadian chairmanships. The Kiruna Declaration’s two headings were “Improving Economic and Social Conditions,” “Acting on Climate Change,” and “Protecting the Arctic Environment.” A key paragraph stated:

“Welcome China, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore as new Observer States, and take note of the adoption by Senior Arctic Officials of an Observer manual to guide the Council’s subsidiary bodies in relation to meeting logistics and the roles played by Observers.”

The 2013 Kiruna ministerial also released the Kiruna Vision (PDF), an official Arctic Council document that is essentially a vision statement for the Arctic. It manages to be simultaneously regionally aware and cognizant of the Arctic’s global stature and the global interest in the region. A key paragraph offers:

“The Arctic is changing and attracting global attention and as we look to the future, we will build on our achievements and will continue to cooperate to ensure that Arctic voices are heard and taken into account in the world.”

In contrast, the Iqaluit Declaration reads like an extended version of the theme of “Development for the People of the North.” The declaration’s headings are “Sustaining Arctic Communities,” “Protecting the Unique Arctic Environment,” and “Building a Stronger Arctic Council.” The first line after the preamble notes the establishment of the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), the Canadian chairmanship’s signature achievement in concretizing its vision of northern development within the official edifices of the Arctic Council. Although the AEC may have a name, board members, three working groups, a slogan (“Fostering Circumpolar Business Partnerships”), a Twitter account, and a website, it still does not have funding, meaning its future may be in doubt despite America’s promise to continue to support it.

Sergey Lavrov’s day off

Some might argue that Sweden’s concern for the globe-spanning issue of climate change and warm welcoming of non-Arctic countries may have distracted from issues within the region – a sort of “wag the dog” effect in the Arctic. But at the other extreme, Canada’s domestic focus may have undermined international cooperation in the Arctic. Two of the Arctic Council’s permanent members, Russia and Sweden, sent representatives other than their foreign ministers to the Iqaluit ministerial. The particular absence of the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, received a lot of attention in the Western media. To get to the bottom, CBC News interviewed Michael Byers, an international law professor and Arctic expert at the University of British Columbia, who concluded that tensions over Ukraine were not the reason Russia for Lavrov’s absence. Instead, the provincialism of the Canadian chairmanship was at fault. Byers argued, “You can’t really blame him (Lavrov) for saying ‘I don’t need to be there’…The Russians don’t consider that anything important about foreign policy will be done in Iqaluit.” In Lavrov’s place was Sergei Donskoi, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Ultimately, Donskoi was probably a more relevant person to send to Iqaluit due to his expertise in managing a department that controversially combines management of both natural resources and the environment. In other countries, including Canada, these two issues are usually managed by separate departments to avoid conflicts of interest. Yet Canada has been accused of increasingly sacrificing its environment to oil and gas development, so perhaps Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is already taking a page out of Russia’s book.

As with anything in the Arctic, though, nothing stays for long. Rotating chairs every two years makes doubly sure of that. With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promising in Iqaluit, “It is not going to come as a surprise to anyone that addressing climate change is a key pillar of the United States chairmanship program, just as it is, in fact, a key part of United States foreign policy writ large today,” climate change will likely unseat economic development as the issue at the top of the agenda at the Arctic Council over the next two years. In my next post, I’ll look into the future directions of the Arctic Council under its new U.S. chairmanship.


*The EU’s application was technically approved in 2013 but disputes with Canada over its seal fur import ban delayed the full awarding of observer status. This month In Iqaluit, Leona Aglukkaq announced, “I can start off by saying that Canada supports the EU application for full observership.” Yet even though the Canadian obstacle is finally out of the way, Russia may now block the EU’s admission due to tensions over Ukraine.

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Arctic Council Ministerial – Winners and Losers, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Denmark:  Nordics to step up security cooperation on perceived Russian threat, Yle News

Finland:  Survey – More than half of reservists in Finland pro-Nato, Yle News

Norway:  Peace and stability crucial for Arctic economy, Barents Observer

Russia: Majorities in Arctic nations favor cooperation with Russia, Barents Observer

Sweden:  Russia concerned by Finland, Sweden moves towards closer ties with NATO, Radio Sweden

United States:  Climate change emphasized as US takes chair of Arctic Council, Eye on the Arctic

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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