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Canada signals new era for Arctic Council

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, Wednesday, May 15, 2013.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Canada quickly established that the Arctic Council – like the fast-melting Arctic – was entering a new era on Wednesday.

China and other Asian powers keen on shipping and development were welcomed to the circumpolar table; so was business. But the European Union was cold-shouldered, as were Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations.

Leona Aglukkaq, the Conservative Health Minister, Nunavut's sole MP, and now the first northerner to lead the eight-nation circumpolar council, wasted no time as she took the helm at the ministerial meeting that marked the end of Sweden's chairmanship.

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The focus, she said, of Canada's two years in the chair – to be followed by the United States – will be on "creating economic development." That shift will dismay environmental activists, who fear the race to extract resources from an ice-free Arctic would ravish and destroy a fragile ecosystem already under stress from climate change. By some estimates, 90 billion barrels of oil and one-fifth of the planet's untapped natural gas lie beneath the Arctic Ocean.

At a news conference in Kiruna, Sweden, site of the world's biggest iron-ore mine, Ms. Aglukkaq also promised "big change" at the Arctic Council. Gone will be the focus on science for its own sake. Instead, research to develop the North for the benefit of northerners – such as her own Inuit and other indigenous peoples in Russia, Alaska and the Nordic countries – will take priority, she said.

"It's time to make sure science is relevant … to improve the well-being and the prosperity of people who live in the Arctic," said the minister, who grew up in tiny, isolated Gjoa Haven. She announced a pan-Arctic business forum to be launched by Canada later this year as a major initiative to spur trade and development by sharing entrepreneurial successes among the nations ringing the Arctic.

As for the six nations newly awarded the coveted status of observer on the council, Ms. Aglukkaq made clear that their interest in development, shipping and trade was welcome. Yet she insisted that the growing number of observers would not "diminish or dilute in any way" the power of Canada and the other seven full members.

It was evident that Canada blocked admission of the European Union over its ban on imports of seal meat and fur. (The council makes decisions by consensus, so only one no vote is needed.) Ms. Aglukkaq makes no secret of the fact that that she regards the EU ban as an offensive bit of unfair interference by arrogant southerners in the lifestyle of her people, calling it a "huge, huge issue."

Meanwhile, five major Asian economic powers – China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea – were granted observer status, along with Italy. The additions mean 13 nations are now observers – but not full voting members. The full council members are the eight circumpolar countries: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Greenland, which has demanded membership in its own right rather than as part of the Danish delegation, boycotted the Kiruna session.

The long-obscure council has vaulted onto the international stage as a key decision-making forum as melting ice opens up vast reserves of minerals, oil and gas.

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Greenpeace, which wants a moratorium on drilling for fossil fuels, staged a small demonstration in Ottawa after failing to win an observer seat – in effect, a status equal to China.

"We will not stand by and let the Harper government use the next two years to advance its destructive industrial agenda at the Arctic Council," Christy Ferguson, Arctic campaign co-ordinator of Greenpeace Canada, said in a statement. "If Harper plans to do to the Arctic what he's done to Canada, anyone who cares about the future of this fragile region should be scared."

Greenpeace demonstrators, who hauled a fake, stuffed polar bear atop a mock oil spill to Parliament Hill, portray Ms. Aglukkaq as a pro-development pawn. The minister, who has the hide of a polar bear shot by her 11-year-old nephew hanging on her office wall, counters that some opponents just want to use their anti-whaling and anti-sealing campaign to raise money.

In Kiruna, despite efforts to present a smooth surface, rifts showed in the council. A pollution pact signed Wednesday included little more than vague promises to act to protect the environment.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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