Reflections on Canada's Vision for the Arctic Council

By Matthew Willis Canada has now replaced Sweden as chair of the Arctic Council. While only time will tell what sort of leadership it will provide, or how it will shape the Council’s activities, the programme for chairmanship it outlined in January has received mixed reviews. Several Arctic governments have openly backed it [1], but others have been more reticent. Media coverage, though generally balanced, has sometimes implied Canada is out of step with the times.[2] Most strikingly, Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, chose the 15th of April – exactly one month before this week’s summit in Kiruna, Sweden – to announce the establishment of a new forum, the Arctic Circle, whose vision appears diametrically opposed to the Canadian one.

This article summarises the Canadian chairmanship programme and reflects on the vision behind it. Without claiming to offer an exhaustive analysis, it argues that Canada’s programme represents something quite novel: not a traditional Canadian vision of the Arctic, but rather an Arctic indigenous Canadian one – something that has seldom, if ever, borne the imprimatur of the federal government. To understand why this is special, one must realise that despite its nickname, the Great White North, Canada is a country whose political centre of gravity is wholly southern. The country’s tiny Arctic population has long been kept on the sidelines of the Canadian political arena, and what has usually passed for a ‘Canadian’ take on the Arctic has in reality been very much southern Canadian.

While acknowledging that, carried to the extreme, Canada’s vision could exclude and alienate, this article contends that the Canadian programme is on the whole an even-keeled proposal. Combining steadfast backing for the inhabitants of the Arctic and a cautiously open attitude towards extra-regional actors, it could be just what is required to ensure the Arctic’s development occurs in a balanced fashion.

The speech in Tromsø
The basic outline of Canada’s chairmanship programme is by now well known. First made public by Canada’s minister of health, Leona Aglukkaq [3], at January’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, the programme’s overarching theme is development for the ‘People of the North’. That theme breaks down into three sub-themes: responsible resource development, safe shipping, and sustainable circumpolar communities.

In fleshing out what each sub-theme meant (and perhaps conscious of the scrutiny Canada was under) Aglukkaq explained that Canada’s chairmanship would in many respects be an extension of Sweden’s. As part of encouraging inward investment into the region, Canada would carry on with its predecessor’s efforts to strengthen ties between the private sector and the Council. As part of regulating maritime traffic, Canada would continue to support ongoing efforts within the Council to develop an oil-spill prevention protocol.

Aglukkaq also made clear that Canada’s turn at the helm would mark a departure. ‘In its first sixteen years, the Council has done very important scientific work,’ she stated, ‘and shaped global policy on key issues like mercury. Canada will continue this work. But now, we must make sure that we are applying the findings of that research in a practical way that will help improve the well-being and prosperity of the people living in the Arctic.’[4] Expanding on that statement in a recent interview, Aglukkaq said, ‘[W]e talk of…Canada’s North developing, the Arctic region of every country’s developing. But it’s the private sector that’s actually going to develop those regions – not scientists.’[5]

What is most striking about the Canadian programme is the apparent tightness of its focus. As Aglukkaq stated in Tromsø, its authors drew heavily on consultations with ‘Northerners’ about ‘the North’ with the aim of helping ‘the North realize its true potential as a healthy, prosperous and secure region.’[6] Only rarely in her speech did non-Arctic actors enter the picture. Commercial interests were alluded to in vague terms such as ‘business’, ‘tourism’ and ‘the many ships’, usually as things to be regulated. In one instance outside interests’ hunger for entry was acknowledged, but only in northern-centric terms: ‘Canada is determined to see Northern communities benefit from the economic boom that is unfolding.’[7] Extra-regional countries, meanwhile, figured not at all – except once, elliptically, as ‘industrial centres far from northern communities’ that propagate ‘short-lived climate forcers, like black carbon.’[8]

Together, the treatment of the Arctic as a place for those living in it and the assertion that Canada’s chairmanship would promote development ‘for the people of the North’ create a sort of closed circuit. ‘Outside’ actors are allowed in, but only to support and serve Northern interests. It follows that the Canadian vision lacks any suggestion that non-Arctic states are entitled to benefit from the Arctic, or that the presence of extra-regional actors – by increasing the intellectual richness of the discussion surrounding ways of developing the region – could bring collective benefits.

Indeed, the idea that anything much remains to be discussed, or that non-Northerners have a natural role to play in any discussion that might break out, is nowhere to be found. Concluding her Tromsø speech, Aglukkaq enjoined her audience to work together, combining the ‘knowledge of the people who have lived in the North for generations’ with that derived from science. But it was clear that her intended interlocutors numbered just fourteen: ‘the eight Arctic Council countries and the six Permanent Participants.’[9]

Against the grain
To call the Canadian vision unfashionable (except in the north) would therefore be an understatement. Whereas the emerging mainstream view treats the Arctic as a space undergoing inexorable globalisation, the Canadian programme treats the Arctic as a bounded region. Whereas the mainstream view holds that a globalising region should be managed in a similarly global way, the Canadian vision is that the Arctic’s inhabitants have particular interests, distinct from non-Northerners’, that take priority. The notion of boundaries and separateness is strengthened by the very use of the term ‘North’, a word that cannot easily be applied to the Arctic by anyone whose country does not include territory there. Not unlike Norway’s preferred term, the High North, the North has a proprietary quality to it which, if not exclusive, is not entirely inclusive either.

Though the purpose of this article is not to contrast the Canadian vision of the Arctic with that embodied by the recently-established Arctic Circle, a brief comparison provides perspective. The Circle’s website portrays the Arctic as a space into which everyone is welcomed, and out of which everyone gets something. The Circle, it says, aims to bring together ‘as many Arctic and international partners as possible under one large, open tent and [in so doing] identify truly sustainable practices for the Arctic….’[10]

The dissonance between the assumptions at the core of the Arctic Circle and those animating the Canadian vision is glaring. According to the founders of the first, the Arctic’s integration into a globalised world is inevitable and should be embraced; the balance between man and nature will be better struck the more parties have a say in a strengthened ‘decision-making process’; the perspective of the Arctic peoples, while important, should be weighed against the perspectives of a wide range of other legitimate ‘stakeholders’. The positivity and energy the Circle radiates suggest a belief in an almost Kantian logic of progress – progress against vested regional interests and narrow-minded national thinking. They seem to capture the global zeitgeist perfectly. The Canadian vision, by comparison, risks sounding old-school and ‘twentieth-century’.

An Arctic indigenous Canadian vision
That is partly the doing of the Canadian government, which has in recent years done a singularly good job of tarnishing Canada’s Arctic credentials. From its chest-thumping over ‘Arctic sovereignty’ to its regressive climate change policies and its vigorous promotion of the Alberta oil sands, Ottawa has cast itself as the Arctic capital least likely to strike the balance required between environmental custodianship and economic development, between individualism and collectivism. Anything commentators believe to be a product of Conservative Ottawa is suspect by association.

Except that the Canadian chairmanship programme is not really a Conservative product. It bears Ottawa’s stamp, so it cannot be incompatible with the government’s thinking; but to depict it as an attempt to imbue the Council with a Conservative ethos is going too far. In fact, the Canadian programme represents neither a vision shaped in Ottawa nor one developed with input from people from around the Arctic: it is a fundamentally Arctic indigenous Canadian vision that would not have emerged from a southern Canadian mind. The distinction between ‘Canadian’ and ‘Arctic [indigenous] Canadian’ may not be apparent to people outside Canada, but it is very real. One has only to consider the country’s population distribution – overwhelmingly concentrated along the US-Canada border – to realise just how far removed the Arctic is from average Canadians’ reality.

This distinction matters because the people of the Canadian Arctic have always been, and remain, among the country’s most marginalised. Whether in matters of education, health, housing, life expectancy or overall prosperity, the Inuit – who account for the vast majority of the Canadian Arctic’s inhabitants [11] – fare far worse than the Canadian average. Unsurprisingly, their priority is basic and tangible: achieving something approaching parity with their southern countrymen.

The establishment of Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, in 1999, was a major step in that direction. Nunavut’s governance model gives the Inuit a real say over the kind of development undertaken and the amount of involvement they have in it, but the territory remains vastly underdeveloped. And that is not just underdeveloped by ‘first-world’ standards, but any standards. Redressing this ‘development deficit’ cannot be achieved simply by throwing the Arctic open to business, of course, and much of the challenge relates to Canadian domestic policy and relations between the federal and territorial governments. Nonetheless, not to seize the opportunity which the Council chairmanship presented to harness the economic forces acting on the region would have defied logic.

Aglukkaq herself has made clear in her public statements, as well as by her tours of Northern Canada and the rest of the circumpolar region, that she is coming at the file from the perspective of an Inuk who still calls the Arctic home. As she recently put it in an interview with the Globe and Mail, “‘I’ll bring a different perspective to the table, a perspective that in my view has not been’ heard in the 16 years since the Council was formed.”[12] Knowing the short leash on which Prime Minister Stephen Harper keeps his ministers, cynics may suggest Aglukkaq is a mere mouthpiece, chosen more to bolster the government’s credibility at home and abroad than for any substantive reason. Her subordinate position to Foreign Minister John Baird, who has ultimate responsibility for the Arctic Council file, gives the idea a whiff of plausibility. According to a Government of Canada source responsible for the Arctic file, however, that is not the case. Baird has de facto handed over the reins, and Harper has expressed his complete faith in Aglukkaq’s instincts.[13] Aglukkaq is, if not the sole author, at least a lead architect of Canada’s chairmanship programme.

Striking a balance
It would therefore be more accurate to call the Canadian agenda cautious rather than parochial. As Aglukkaq’s speech in Tromsø and subsequent public statements make plain, Canada has no desire to see ‘outsiders’ excluded from the region. Commercial and industrial development is welcome. It must simply be controlled sufficiently to ensure the benefits others derive from it do not come at the expense of the Arctic’s inhabitants. Put differently, it expresses the determination that Northerners not be excluded from their own backyards (again). In that vein, recent research by James Manicom and Whitney Lackenbauer illustrates the potential risks of courting investment from Asia. They found that governments in countries like China and Japan are ‘not familiar with the phenomenon of indigenous internationalism and may not even comprehend the legal relationship between some indigenous groups and their government, such as land-claim and self-government agreements.’[14]

Responses from the international commentariat that suggest the Canadian position is somehow backward must be scrutinised. The subtext is that an ‘outward-facing’ Council – reflecting the Swedish philosophy or the Arctic Circle’s – would be more progressive.[15] But value judgments are always problematic. Why are more decision-makers better than fewer? What guarantees that decisions generated by larger groups are sager than those by smaller groups? More importantly, who, in the end, benefits most from decisions taken in large committees? It cannot escape any thoughtful reader’s attention that the larger the decision-making pool, the smaller a fraction of it Northerners would represent. Surely, a tyranny of the majority would be no better than a tyranny of the minority: both are tyranniesAAsA.

To those who fear that Conservative Ottawa’s influence could push environmental custodianship to the bottom of the Arctic Council’s agenda, Northerners’ prominence in shaping the programme, not to mention their presence on the Council, suggests otherwise. Though they do want economic development, the Inuit have every interest in not sacrificing the land – to which they are historically, culturally and economically tied – to get it. Nothing would be more self-defeating.[16]

Where the Canadian vision’s critics have a point, however, is in their concern that it could, taken too far, imply a kind of rear-guard action against emerging economic and political realities. Whatever the merits of Aglukkaq’s Tromsø address, the decision not to use it to acknowledge the interests of non-Arctic actors was a mis-step. It is to be hoped that the omission was for rhetorical purposes, intended to sharpen the government’s message and convey a sense of purpose. In this it succeeded. If the omission stemmed from a genuine belief that external actors belong in an ‘object-subject’ relationship vis-à-vis Northerners, however, like tools to be used for northern gain, Ottawa will run into difficulties. Cultural imperialism, on embarrassing display when it came to the EU’s seal ban, is the kind of thing Northerners are entirely justified in dismissing. But the same smugness in reverse is equally obnoxious.

On the face of it, then, there is good reason to be hopeful about the direction Canada intends to take the Arctic Council. In presenting Northerners’ desire for a balance between environmental custodianship and economic development (ie. sustainable development and communities), it is both pragmatic and in touch with (what seems to be) world public opinion. In adopting a cautious approach towards the globalisation of the Arctic, however, it is also true to the original purpose of the Council, which was to help further the interests of the people of the North. As ever, though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The goodly number of observer-status applications the Council approved yesterday, and its measured handling of the European Union, suggest it plans to match words and actions. Let us hope, therefore, that the Kiruna summit is a sign of things to come.

[1] See the feature on the Canadian International Council’s website belonging to ‘Cold Calculations: the politics of Arctic development,’ 20 February 2013 <>. In separate conversations, the Danish, Norwegian and Finnish ambassadors to Great Britain also confirmed to the author that their countries supported Canada’s proposal.
[2] See, for example, Mia Bennett, ‘Pro-development Arctic Council, led by Canada, begins to take shape,’ Alaska Dispatch, 14 March 2013 <>; also, Randy Boswell, ‘Aglukkaq of the Arctic: Can federal minister set a vision for international council?’ Montreal Gazette, 12 May 2013 <>.
[3] Aglukkaq was made chair of the Arctic Council by the prime minister in August 2012 and holds the portfolios concurrently.
[4] Address by Minister Aglukkaq at Arctic Frontiers Conference, ‘Canada’s second chairmanship of the Arctic Council,’ Tromsø, Norway, 21 January 2013 <>.
[5] Randy Boswell, op. cit.
[6] Government of Canada, ‘Minister Aglukkaq to Visit Arctic Council States,’ 14 January 2013 <>.
[7] Address by Minister Aglukkaq, op. cit.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Arctic Circle website <>.
[11] In Nunavut, the federal territory accounting for the vast majority of Canada’s Arctic geography, the aboriginal population is fully 83 percent of the total according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 data.
[12] Paul Koring, ‘Aglukkaq promises “different perspective” as chair of northern body,’ Globe and Mail, 10 May 2013 <>.
[13] Interview with a Government of Canada official, 29 April 2013.
[14] James Manicom and Whitney Lackenbauer, ‘East Asian states, the Arctic Council and international relations in the Arctic,’ Policy Brief no. 26 (April 2013) <>.
[15] It goes without saying that the Arctic Circle’s mission statement is no less an exercise in political messaging than Canada’s chairmanship programme. For instance, to the extent that Iceland, through its president, shaped the new organisation, the Circle can be considered a reasonable reflection of Icelandic geopolitical interests. For an excellent discussion of the subject, see Klaus Dodds and Valur Ingimundarson, ‘Territorial nationalism and Arctic geopolitics: Iceland as an Arctic coastal state,’ The Polar Journal 2:1 (2012): 21-37.
[16] In this connection, readers may wish to examine two documents of which Aglukkaq and her team will be well aware: The Inuit Circumpolar Council’s Inuit Arctic Policy, released in 2010, available at <>; and its Circumpolar Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, released in 2009, available at <>.