Skip to main content

Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

An American official says she senses "a diminishment of the priority" of science and research under Canada's chairmanship at the Arctic Council, and pledged that the United States will ensure science is a key focus when it takes over the chair position from Canada in two years.

U.S. senior Arctic official Julia Gourley also cautioned that Canada's renewed focus on Arctic shipping should not include the main route itself, the Northwest Passage, while Canada and the U.S. are at odds over its legal status.

The comments come as the three-day Arctic Council summit in Whitehorse launches Canada's term as chair. Leona Aglukkaq, Canada's minister for the council, has said she wants a bigger role for indigenous people in research and wants the council – established essentially as an environmental research body – to focus more on tangible projects for Northern residents.

"I don't really sense a threat to science under her leadership, but I do sense a diminishment of the priority," Ms. Gourley said, adding that the council's collaborative nature would ultimately keep research high on the agenda.

"Certainly, the United States would never allow any threats to science work at the council, so we would defend it. That might be something that's a little different between Canada and the U.S., actually – science will be central to our chairmanship," Ms. Gourley said. "But I don't think there's any threat to science here, really, because it's a multilateral forum."

Ms. Aglukkaq has said that science will "absolutely not" be compromised by efforts to include more indigenous input. That input "will only enhance science, not diminish it," Jennifer Kennedy, a spokesperson for Ms. Aglukkaq, said Tuesday. "It's not accurate to suggest that under Canada's chairmanship, science is diminishing."

Canada is also pushing for the Arctic Council to develop shipping standards in the North, where melting ice has opened the Northwest Passage.

Canada has made no mention of the passage itself – just the shipping that could go through it. Canada and the U.S. disagree on the legal status of the passage, a subject Ms. Gourley said won't be raised at the council. "That's a battle left to others. The council doesn't duplicate the effort of other international forums, and I think of course the IMO deals with those kinds of issues," she said, referring to the International Maritime Organization, which is also developing polar shipping standards.

The U.S. is, however, broadly supportive of many of the council's priorities for Canada's term, including a focus on indigenous people, which Ms. Gourley praised as "new and very positive," and the creation of a circumpolar business forum.

Ms. Aglukkaq kicked off the meeting Monday, but left Tuesday morning as council talks continued. A representative of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, a council participant representing First Nations in Canada and the U.S., wasn't stirred by Ms. Aglukkaq's address. "Talk is cheap," said Chief Gary Harrison of the Chickaloon Village Athabascan Nation in Alaska. In particular, he's concerned about the council's renewed focus on responsible resource development. "Resource extraction is not development," Mr. Harrison said in Whitehorse Tuesday, adding he doesn't want the council to evolve "from an environmental body to an extractive body."

The council has four task forces, including one on scientific co-operation, one on marine oil spill preparedness, one on black-carbon pollution and another on creating a business forum. Canada says it will launch the forum in January in Ottawa, but officials from three other countries said Tuesday there's no chance the forum will be finalized by then. "No, to be blunt," said Hannu Halinen, Finland's senior Arctic officer. "I think we still want to hear more from the business side, their views," he added.

Canada's two-year chair term also brings in the inclusion of several "observer" countries to the council, including China and the European Union, who are attending the summit. It is scheduled to wrap up Wednesday.

Interact with The Globe