Canada and the Arctic Council: Promoting Co-operation in a Region of Growing Geopolitical Importance

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arcticcouncil1[An overview of the chapter Terry Fenge is writting for the Perspectives on the Environmental History of Northern Canada book]

In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, delivered a lengthy speech in Murmansk, in which he called for the Arctic to become a “zone of peace”. His noted that even during the depths of the cold war, Canada and the Soviet Union had maintained scientific exchanges. How would the west, including Canada, respond? How might uneasy confrontation in the Arctic between east and west be replaced by co-operation, and what role might Canada play in developing a new narrative among and between the Arctic states?

This chapter tells the still unfolding story of the eight-nation Arctic Council established through a political declaration signed in Ottawa in 1996. The council is unique, not just for what it does, but for what it is and who is involved. A “high level forum” rather an institution, with a mandate stressing environmental protection and sustainable development, the council has six Arctic Indigenous peoples’ organizations as Permanent Participants. Representatives of Saami, Inuit, Aleut, Gwich’in, Athabaskan peoples and the numerous Indigenous peoples in northern Russia sit at the same table as the Arctic states (they too have flags) intervening in exactly the same manner as the states, mixing it up in public as well as behind closed doors.

The council has done sterling technical and scientific work, exemplified by the 1997 State of the Arctic Environment report and the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). Both featured prominently on the international stage informing and contributing to the development of global policy. The 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has a preambular clause singling out the Arctic and its Indigenous communities–the first Arctic-specific clause in a global legally-binding agreement. This came about as a result of the technical work of the council supported by the policy and advocacy efforts of the Permanent Participants.

It is now broadly understood that the Arctic is the globe’s “barometer” or “bellweather” when it comes to the impacts of climate change. The Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme passed a resolution to this effect in 2003, and when released the following year, the ACIA received world-wide publicity. Polar bears are now the globe’s iconic species threatened by climate change. The Permanent Participants were deeply engaged in the ACIA. This chapter reveals how, why and to what effect.

In the last few years the Arctic has received quite extraordinary attention internationally, and is now a region of real and growing geopolitical importance. International relations in the region have changed markedly since Mikhail Gorbachev’s Murmansk speech, but they may change even faster in coming decades. China, Japan, the European Union and others are elbowing their way into the region. They want to become involved in the Arctic Council, and some suggest a new legally-binding treaty is needed to ensure development in this most fragile and vulnerable of regions is “orderly”. Charles Emmerson’s recent book purports to be, no less than: The Future History of the Arctic. Quite a claim!

Canada persuaded its Arctic neighbours, particularly the United States of America, to support the concept of an Arctic Council. The signing by all eight Arctic states of the Ottawa Declaration in 1996 giving effect to the council was an undisputed diplomatic success for the Government of Canada, and reflected commitments by both Liberal and Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers. The council is now at a cross roads. Will it evolve to embrace and engage the wider world reflecting the barometer metaphor mentioned earlier, or will it remain an Arctic club, more than a little suspicious of the Arctic interests of “outsiders”? Read the forthcoming chapter and find out.

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