Canada will begin a two-year stint at the helm of the eight-nation Arctic Council amid a clamour of competing calls for leadership, as the ice recedes and the race heats up to extract resource riches while protecting a fragile and now-exposed environment.
While there's near-unanimity that Canada will need to lead when it takes over from Sweden in May, the direction and pace remain in sharp dispute. The oil industry wants to get busy drilling; ocean shippers are eyeing cost-saving shortcuts across long-frozen seas, while environmentalists fear the melting polar pack leaves the Arctic vulnerable to unrestrained ravage.
Most expect, and some fear, the Conservative government will tip towards development.
Leona Aglukkaq, the Health Minister tapped by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a surprise choice to represent Canada alongside the foreign ministers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, "is clearly, on behalf of the government of Canada, taking a pro-development approach," said Doug Matthews, an Alberta-based energy analyst who spent decades working in the Northwest Territories. "The federal government is bending over backwards to accommodate the energy industry's interest in the Arctic," Mr. Matthews said Thursday in an interview. He expects Ottawa to try to bring a similar approach to the Arctic Council. "They're sending signals to industry that development is welcome," he said.
With a circumpolar pact on oil and gas drilling safeguards in the offing, that may be Ottawa's first chance to signal which way it intends to lead the council.
Environmentalists fear the worst. "The Arctic Council and the Canadian government should put the brakes on the madness of using climate change to extract more oil, minerals and fish from the Arctic," said Yossi Cadan, Greenpeace Canada's campaigns director. Greenpeace wants Ottawa to champion a "ban on any oil drilling and destructive fishing and develop a plan, not for the next oil drills, but for the health of the Arctic 100 years from now."
The Arctic, Mr. Cadan said, is "not Shell's or Harper's next tar sands project, any irresponsible development there will affect all humanity."
There seems no chance of an Ottawa-led ban on drilling, although Ms. Aglukkaq, who grew up in Gjoa Haven, a hamlet of 1,200, and represents Nunavut, says a successful Arctic future means "we must build bridges between people who live there and the new realities."
The stark new reality is of a massive transformation from a polar region icebound in winter and ice-choked in summer to an ocean largely ice-free in summer and, many scientists predict, increasingly warmed by human-caused climate change. For some, that means not just bridges but roads and mines and ports to ship the resources to the rest of the world.
"Development and jobs," said NWT Premier Bob McLeod, adding that Ottawa needs to give the three northern territorial governments a "more active role" in running the circumpolar club. But Mr. McLeod has no doubt that developing the Arctic's riches is a top priority.
"We need to make sure there are job and business opportunities," he said in an interview Thursday. As for new big-ticket projects that would signal Ottawa's commitment, he'd like to see a second deep-water harbour, this one in the Northwest Territories, that would spur development of mines by providing an export route to global markets.
So it's no surprise that trading nations as distant as South Korea and China, and regional groupings including the European Union, are all clamouring for a seat at the Arctic Council table. So far the existing founding eight have been offering "observer" status, although some worry that will lead to even greater pressure as non-Arctic nations seek a piece of the polar pie.
"We would very much like to have a stake into this by becoming an observer in the Arctic Council," an EU official said. "We're going to launch a campaign in order to convince the eight members of the Arctic Council to have a positive answer to our request."
Chairing the Arctic Council as the planet's northern polar region becomes more accessible will add even greater visibility to Mr. Harper's annual summer pilgrimage to Canada's North. But the Prime Minister needs to do more than wave the flag and trumpet Canadian sovereignty, say critics who want the government to take a more measured and international approach to emerging problems.
Michael Byers, who has written extensively about Canadian Arctic policy, says it's past time that Mr. Harper stop playing "domestic politics rather than thinking about Canada's chairmanship with a global perspective." Prof. Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, suggests that if the Prime Minister was serious about "sending a big signal that Canada's leadership was to be about circumpolar co-operating and environmental protection," then declaring a moratorium on commercial fishing in the Beaufort waters north and west of the Canadian Arctic archipelago would be a responsible first step.
The moratorium would, at a stroke, accomplish several things, Prof. Byers said. It would match a U.S. moratorium in the waters north of Alaska. In doing so, it would put the two countries in step, not only on protecting a potential fishery until its vulnerability can be assessed, but also by erasing the current confusion over the extent of the U.S. moratorium, which spills into waters claimed by Canada given the still-unresolved dispute over the maritime boundary north of the Yukon and Alaska. More importantly, it would signal a willingness to protect and assess a resource before deciding whether, and how, to exploit it.