Canada's leadership of the Arctic Council — a look back

​Canada wraps up two years as chair of the Arctic Council on Friday with a mixture of diplomatic successes and failures under its belt, having used the international body primarily to focus on economic development in the North.

The international policy group changed over time to focus on the economy

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt hands the gavel, which symbolizes handing the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, to Canada's Minister of the Arctic Council Leona Aglukkaq, at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting, in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2013. Canada will pass the gavel to the U.S. tomorrow. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Canada wraps up two years as chair of the Arctic Council on Friday with a mixture of diplomatic successes and failures under its belt, having used the international body primarily to focus on economic development in the North.

Canada's flagship move was to create the Arctic Economic Council, a separate body made up entirely of the private sector.

Historically, the Arctic Council has focused on environmental protection — something the United States wants to return to when it takes up the chairmanship of the council on Friday. Last year, U.S. State Department Arctic envoy Robert Papp said tackling climate change would be a priority.

The difference in focus has highlighted current tensions between environmental sustainability and economic development says Sara French, a Gordon Foundation policy analyst.

"That's a debate that's happening across kitchen tables across the North."

Nearing third decade

Founded in 1996, the Council brings together representatives from eight nations and six aboriginal groups to work together on shared foreign policy issues in the Arctic. Officials from all parties participate in working groups focused on issues such as wildlife conservation, pollution, and sustainable development. Each member state gets to lead for two years; the U.S., represented by Secretary of State John Kerry, is set to take over tomorrow.

Ottawa's decision to put Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq in charge of the council, rather than the foreign affairs department, raised eyebrows. Some diplomats have privately questioned Canada's focus on domestic issues.

Sour relations with Russia

Tension between Russia and Canada has coloured the work of the group. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has personally had strong words with Russian president Vladimir Putin over Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia has been beefing up its military presence in the Arctic, conducting war games and even buzzing Canadian airspace. Last week, Russian deputy prime minister Dimitri Rogozin tweeted that the Arctic was Russia's "mecca."

Aglukkaq has vowed to use the Arctic Council meeting to send a strong rebuke to Russia over Ukraine. However, she will be directing those remarks to Russia's minister for natural resources and the environment; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will skip the meeting because of "previous commitments," according to the Russian embassy in Ottawa.

Not everyone in the Russian government is sabre-rattling. In a recent interview with Russian state news agency TASS, Russian Ambassador at Large Vladimir Barbin said it is "of great importance for us that peace and security in the Arctic may be promoted only through strengthened cooperation."

Aboriginal participation

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is one of six indigenous groups represented in the Arctic Council. Chair Okalik Eegesiak said there's work to be done, but is happy with some of Canada's accomplishments.

"I think Canada has helped to raise the profile of a number of different issues that ICC feels are important," adding that those issues include traditional knowledge, mental health, and suicide prevention.

Could they have done more? "Governments could always improve on those things," she said, hoping the US would add more funding for indigenous groups to carry out their work the way they see fit.

Environmental concerns

Greenpeace has slammed Canada's creation of the Arctic Economic Council, calling it opaque and unaccountable.

The environmental lobby is calling for the group to introduce a stricter definition of sustainable development.

However, Greenpeace has also applauded the Arctic Council's work on improving the mental health of northerners, as well as work on cutting black carbon emissions.


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