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northern summit

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, right, will represent Canada on the Arctic Council.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada took the the helm Wednesday at a ministerial summit of the circumpolar, eight-nation Arctic Council, where Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq faced a clamour from southern nations seeking a greater role in the race to extract the Arctic's vast oil and mineral riches.

"We must remember that the Arctic Council was formed by Northerners, for Northerners, long before the region was of interest to the rest of the world," Ms Aglukkaq said, even as the group agreed to give five more nations observer status.

Canada still blocked granting observer status to the European Union – part of a lingering, bitter dispute over the EU's ban on seal products – but a slew of nations were given a role in the council.

China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy were all granted observer status, which doesn't include full voting rights.

"I'll bring a different perspective to the table," that of a real northerner,  Ms. Aglukkaq had said before leaving for Sweden. Ms. Aglukkaq was born and raised in Canada's Arctic, and represents Nunavut as a Conservative MP. That Prime Minster Stephen Harper picked her – not the foreign minister, who usually holds Canada's seat at the council – was seen as symbolic. But Ms. Aglukkaq is no figurehead; she has already served notice that she's fed up with southern environmentalists trying to dictate – or stall – northern development. "There is no shortage of views, often from afar, as to how the Arctic should be managed and developed in response to the new challenges facing the region," she said as Canada took over the chair.

Climate change has thrust the Arctic Council – long a mostly ignored forum – into a fractious jumble of competing interests.

The council – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States – is as riven as the summer's rotting ice pack over whether to allow outsiders in or seek to manage the Arctic as some sort of shared jurisdiction. Canada is opposed, but the council's tradition of consensus decision-making means it's likely that most, if not all, of the nations seeking observer status will get it.

Meanwhile, indigenous peoples are equally divided – some seeking a stake in development riches, others demanding an end to what they regard as the "oppression of our peoples and the barbaric destruction of our lands."

At a pre-summit gathering of indigenous peoples held in Kiruna, Sweden, a handful of Canadian delegates were among more than 80 who called for a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

However, Inuit leaders in Canada rejected the statement as a "Greenpeace-orchestrated campaign" against resource development.

"I know that the legitimate Inuit claims organizations and leaders across Canada's Arctic regions do not share this view and we collectively reject Greenpeace's questionable use of the Indigenous voice as a front for its own campaign," Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said in a release.

On Wednesday, in foggy, rainy Kiruna, next to the planet's biggest iron-ore mine, the Arctic Council ministerial summit will wrestle with the vexed issue of handing out observer status to nations clamouring for a place, deal with a drilling treaty, and hand the helm to Ms. Aglukkaq, the first Inuk in a Canadian cabinet and now the first to chair a major international forum.

She announced that Canada wanted to  "provide a way for business and industry to engage with the Arctic States and Permanent Participants," and proposed to create a business forum at the council to "build partnerships, increase co-operation, and share best practices."

With Canada's two-year chairmanship to be followed by the United States, there is growing disquiet among the European members of the council. Several Nordic countries, notably Iceland, have cut deals recently with China that some see as an effort to circumvent or perhaps provide a competing forum to the council.

Ms. Aglukkaq has already served notice that Canada's two-year stint – its second since the council was created – will make a concerted effort to put the needs and priorities of northerners, especially indigenous peoples, first.

John Kerry, the new U.S. Secretary of State, will also attend, along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

America's Arctic priorities put protecting its national security interests first. Moscow, too, has been aggressive in staking territorial claims stretching to the North Pole.

Aside from a search-and-rescue treaty signed two years ago that did little more than divvy up the Arctic into zones of responsibility, the council has accomplished little.

A draft treaty – designed to prevent pollution from oil and gas drilling – may be signed at this week's ministerial summit, but it was quickly denounced by Greenpeace and other environmental groups that leaked it months ago.

"The agreement does nothing to protect the Arctic environment and nothing to protect the peoples of the Arctic … it is effectively useless," said Christy Ferguson, Arctic project leader for Greenpeace Canada, which obtained a draft of the treaty.

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