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arctic council

Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq points to Gjoa Haven following an announcement in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, last year, when she was named the next chair of the Arctic Council.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The huge, white polar bear – the Arctic's undisputed top predator – doesn't seem at all out of place in Leona Aglukkaq's spacious ministerial office high above the river in Ottawa's gothic-revival Confederation Building.

Ms. Aglukkaq, an Inuk, is very proud of it – and prouder still of her nephew, who shot the big bear when he was only 11. It was the boy's first polar bear kill and he gave the hide, its noble head still attached, to his aunt, whose heart is still in Gjoa Haven and who represents the vast, Arctic constituency of Nunavut.

It's a very long way from an Arctic childhood living off the land without electricity to health minister of a major Western nation and the first Inuk in a Canadian cabinet. But Ms. Aglukkaq, poised and just as comfortable in the corridors of power as she is eating seal in Gjoa Haven, is far from done.

She's about to step onto the international stage in a big way – picked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to chair the eight-nation Arctic Council for Canada's two-year stint at the helm, which begins next week. It's a tough job at a critical time, with global warming transforming the Arctic and a race to grab polar riches while – perhaps – dooming a fragile ecosystem that hasn't been ice-free for the last 2.5-million years.

It will put the 45-year-old Health Minister in the company of such heavyweights as the foreign ministers of Russia and the United States, as the major powers grapple with resource risks and rewards in a fast-melting Arctic. Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden round out the eight circumpolar nations, but others – notably China, France and South Korea – are eyeing a stake in the Arctic's routes and resources and clamouring for seats at the table.

"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, she says. In short, a Northerner who has no intention of playing the Inuk figurehead, and whose people will have a real say.

As for environmentalists and wildlife preservationists, Ms. Aglukkak is intent on fighting off efforts to turn the North into some sort of pristine circumpolar park. She also wants big oil, mining and shipping firms involved – an approach certain to send shivers through the constituency seeking to keep mining and drilling out of the Arctic. "We need better engagement of the business community," she says. "We need to talk to the people that live in the North, that are developing the North, that are shipping through the North, that are mining in the North."

Ms. Aglukkaq is especially irked by outsiders telling Arctic peoples what should happen in their homeland. She tartly dismisses Olivier De Schutter, the UN special right-to-food envoy, as "a hypocrite" for failing to back the seal hunt. And she is infuriated by groups like the Humane Society of the United States that raise millions annually railing against a white-coat seal pup hunt that hasn't existed for decades.

"I'm fighting to keep our meals on the table, I'm fighting a global community to defend my right to seal meat or the polar bear," she says. "It's a challenge but as a Northerner and an Inuk person that depends on the environment I live in, I have a lot to contribute."

Ms. Aglukkaq comes armed with something that Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov lack: direct knowledge and a personal stake in the Arctic. But she's diplomatic about the ministerial representatives of the council's other seven nations. "Some of them are quite knowledgeable," she says, with a just trace of sarcasm.

Born days before Canada celebrated its first century as an independent Western nation, Ms. Aglukkaq moves seamlessly between an indigenous society and the hurly-burly of national politics. On this dreary Ottawa day, she's just dropped her own son off at preschool and, with barely an hour before Question Period, has a few views to share about the gaggles of scientists who flock north in summer.

Those "scientists concerned the polar bear is disappearing have it wrong," she says. In fact, the minister asserts, the claim that fast-disappearing summer sea ice threatens the polar bear with extinction is just flat wrong. "My brother is a full-time hunter," she says. "And he says there's an abundance of bears."

Ms. Aglukkaq can cite countless instances of supposedly expert outsiders whose claims didn't stand the test of indigenous knowledge. For instance, the time Canadian scientists warned of dramatic falls in narwhal populations, and then spent more than two years refusing to listen to Inuit hunters who wanted to point out that the scientists were looking in the wrong place.

It's a life-long and somewhat bitter experience – of outsiders telling her and her people what to eat and when to hunt. At a high-level diplomat dinner in Paris, she pointedly told a European minister that his effort to keep seal from her family's dinner table was no different than if she was to deny him his coq au vin, according to an aide familiar with the event.

She regards the Nunavut model, where Canada's Inuit have played a major role in deciding which development goes ahead and setting standards of indigenous entrepreneurial involvement, as one that other northern nations might emulate. She wants the council to stop being a talking shop, mostly concerned with research and tackling safe subjects like divvying up the Arctic for search and rescues. Rather, she sees it as a forum for exchanges of best-development practices and emerging technologies. Canada, she suggests, has a great deal to learn from Scandinavians in terms of wind power.

But mostly she is determined to transform the role of indigenous peoples, who currently have only a limited status in the Arctic Council. "A lot of us indigenous people are quite emotional about it," she says. "In this day and age, why are they still outside the door?"