The overarching theme of Canada’s upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council will be the promotion of economic development of northern regions, says the Canadian minister responsible for the Council.

Speaking on Monday at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Trømso, in northern Norway, Leona Aglukkaq said Canada will focus on sustainable economic development of the Arctic.

"With the help of our Arctic Council partners, we will focus on creating economic growth, strong and sustainable northern communities and healthy ecosystems," said Aglukkaq, addressing the conference entitled ‘Arctic Frontiers: Geopolitics & Marine Production in a Changing Arctic.’

mi-leona-aglukkaq-cp-00160734

Leona Aglukkaq was speaking at the Arctic Frontiers confenrece in Trømso, Norway, Monday. Aglukkaq will helm the Arctic Council when Canada takes over from Sweden in May. (The Canadian Press)

Canada is expected to take over the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Sweden in May.

But the Conservative government’s priorities for the circumpolar body have come under fire from the opposition.

"It is unfortunate that the Conservatives have chosen to use the only international forum focused on the Arctic for the promotion of resource development which is a national issue," said Dennis Bevington, the New Democratic Party critic for the Northern Economic Development Agency portfolio, reacting to Aglukkaq’s speech. "Instead of taking this narrow, nationalistic approach, Canada should be continuing the work of the three previous chairs (Sweden, Denmark and Norway) to develop and strengthen international cooperation on issues such as climate change, fisheries and ecosystem management."

Aglukkaq, who hails from the Inuit community of Gjoa Haven in Nunavut, said Canada will propose three sub-themes to guide the work of the Arctic Council during its two-year chairmanship.

Responsible development

The first will be ‘Responsible Arctic Resource Development,’ she said.

"Canada is determined to see Northern communities benefit from the economic boom that is unfolding in the region," Aglukkaq said, who is also Canada’s federal health minister and the minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.

"However, this development must be done in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner so that the land, water and animals that many Northern people still depend upon, are not negatively impacted."

Developing safe Arctic shipping is another priority for Canada. Aglukkaq said Canada will continue the Council’s work on oil spill prevention in the Arctic.

"An oil spill from one of the many ships that will soon be crossing the Arctic waterways as the shipping season extends, could have serious consequences for the environment and the livelihoods of Northern people," Aglukkaq said. "Canada foresees the development of guidelines for Arctic tourism and cruise ship operators."

The third and final sub-theme for Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship will be sustainable circumpolar communities, Aglukkaq said.

"My family, friends and all Northerners are facing new challenges as a result of the impacts of climate change," she said. "The Arctic region will not only be facing a time of change and challenge but also a time of great opportunity."

Arctic treasure trove

Canada’s focus on economic development of the Arctic was echoed by Yevgeny Lukyanov, the deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

"For the majority of Russians, the Arctic and everything connected to it, is not an abstract concept or a romantic exotica, but a practical and a vitally important reality," Lukaynov said.

The Russian Arctic produces 11 per cent of the country’s gross national product, Lukyanov said. Ninety-three per cent of Russia’s natural gas and 75 per cent of its oil comes from the Russian Arctic, he said.

"For the Russian economy there are no alternatives for the majority of resources extracted in the North," Lukyanov said. "These resources provide Russia’s strategic security and will be a determining factor in lifting and modernizing its economy."

Developing Northern Sea Route

Lukyanov also pointed to the development of trans-Arctic shipping through the Northern Sea Route as one of the linchpins of its economic strategy in the Arctic.

Unlike Canada, which fears repercussions of regular international shipping through the Northwest Passage for its sovereignty claim over the disputed maritime route, Russia is actively promoting its Northern Sea Route as an alternative shipping line from Asia to Europe.

Instead of the current seasonal shipping through the Northern Sea Route, Russia wants to develop year-around trans-Arctic shipping, Lukyanov said.

While Russia is the only country to possess a nuclear powered icebreaker fleet, it still needs investments from the private industry and international partners to make its dream of year-around Arctic navigation a reality, Lukyanov said.