Arctic Council tensions threaten environment as Canada exits chair
NGO plays go-between as Russian sanctions over Ukraine set back joint action on fuel clean-up
Canada is being urged to avoid dragging politics into today's Arctic Council meeting in Iqaluit.
But as senior diplomats and ministers from eight Arctic nations arrive in the capital of Nunavut, there are indications Canada has already allowed tensions with Russia to affect the agenda.
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The one-day ministerial meeting held every two years was supposed to be preceded by a day-long event in Ottawa this week to highlight Canada's accomplishments over its two-year chairmanship of the council, which is now ending.
That event was abruptly cancelled in February after months of planning.
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq cites logistical reasons.
"Ideas were bounced around about showcasing the initiatives of the territories here in Ottawa," said Aglukkaq in an interview with CBC News.
"For the challenges of everything happening all at once, we decided we wouldn't do that."
Concerns in 'geopolitical and security context'
Documents obtained by CBC suggest the decision was political.
A top foreign affairs official, Susan Harper, sent a letter to Arctic Council members on Feb. 28, informing them of "a decision today, at senior levels of the Canadian government, to not proceed with the Ottawa Arctic Council showcase, planned for April 23."
"In the current geopolitical and security context, there were growing concerns about this event."
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Sources tell CBC that they worried about the optics of senior Russian officials visiting Ottawa, given continuing tensions over Ukraine.
Aglukkaq said she plans to raise Ukraine with the Russians during the meeting.
That would be a marked departure: The council has operated for nearly 20 years on consensus and has always avoided getting bogged down by geopolitics.
Who sits on the Arctic Council?
- Canada, United States, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland.
- Circumpolar indigenous groups are permanent members.
The council's mandate is to protect the Arctic environment and promote sustainable development in the northern communities that share the top of the world. The philosophy is that the only way to succeed in such a remote area is to work together.
Dysfunction risks fuel spill
Environmentalists warn political tensions make it hard to manage environmental threats.
For example, WWF Canada (the World Wildlife Fund) says an abandoned, fuel-laden barge has been allowed to drift through the Arctic Ocean and is now frozen in the ice about 80 kilometres off Russia's northeast coast.
The barge is owned by a Canadian company, Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL.) It broke free from its tow boat during a storm last October in the Beaufort Sea near Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, and drifted through American waters, then into Russia's Chukchi Sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard dropped a GPS device on the barge to keep track of its movements. But the U.S. and Canadian coast guards aren't talking to Russia. So the WWF is acting as a go-between, providing information.
Alexey Knizhnikov, head of extractive industry and environmental policy for WWF Russia, calls it "bizarre."
"We see it as weakness of the Arctic states' ability to conduct joint rescue operations because of the problem of sanctions of the Russian regime," he said in an interview from Moscow.
The barge has 3,500 litres of fuel. Not a lot, according to Knizhnikov, but enough to threaten the summer habitat of colonies of Pacific walrus that live there in the summer.
"Even a small amount of fuel could be toxic for the feeding area," said Knizhnikov
NTCL says it will retrieve the vessel in July when the ice melts.
Knizhnikov isn't sure how that will happen if the countries aren't talking.
The U.S., now taking over the chair, is expected to pressure Canada to back off on Russia.
"The Obama administration has been very clear that Arctic co-operation must continue," said Michael Byers, international affairs professor at the University of British Columbia, "that the issues of climate change in the Arctic are simply too important to be caught up in the tensions in Ukraine and eastern Europe.
"The Canadian government will be causing serious problems with its relationship with Washington, as well as with Moscow, if it seeks to bring the Ukrainian situation into the Arctic Council," Byers said.
But Aglukkaq, who hands the helm to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, says tensions won't get in the way.
"We condemn what Russia is doing to Ukraine and sanctions have been taken against Russia" she told CBC. "We've been very, very clear as a country."
But she added, "the Arctic council operates on a consensus basis.The initiatives that we undertook during our chairmanship, those were decided two years ago'' — long before the latest disputes with Russia.
"Like any conference ... there are challenges," she said.