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Canada welcomed the world's Arctic nations this week, five days after a Throne Speech that pledged a renewed focus on the North.

The summit in Whitehorse marked the start of Canada's two-year term as chair of the international Arctic Council, and gave Ottawa – and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the Nunavut MP and government's voice in the North – a chance to outline a vision for the region.

Canada pledged a Northern Agenda focused on Northerners, a de facto rejection of any whiff of ivory-tower research focus rooted in the South. Working groups were created to study gender equality, mental health, cancer rates and climate change adaptation. Marine oil spill mitigation was a focus cited by Ms. Aglukkaq, as was what she called "responsible resource development."

The Globe spoke with senior arctic officials – SAOs, as they're called – for each of the other seven Arctic nations, and some indigenous groups. Many are broadly supportive of Canada's initiatives, while others have doubts from a weakened Canadian environmental record. And many have a focus of their own.

1. Russia

Russia SAO Anton Vasiliev was effusive in his praise of Canada’s priorities. “I think Canada has done a great job in providing us with a series of initiatives and new ideas and concrete proposals,” he said.

The countries have similar issues – land area, namely – and see eye-to-eye. Norway’s official said Russia and Canada are seen as outliers on environmental issues, and less concerned than the other six nations.

Mr. Vasiliev said Russia backs the bid to work on Arctic shipping standards, and to balance, in his words, “industrial presence” and a “traditional way of life.” He supports the new studies of gender equality (“how many ladies are there?”), mental wellness and cancer rates (“Never tan under the first warm Arctic sun in April and May”).

One key Russian issue is ice-breakers. Russia is building new nuclear-powered “22nd-century” ones, he said. Meanwhile, they’re renovating their ports and building new ones, including one, Sabetta, for liquefied natural gas export from Siberia. “The situation has changed – new opportunities, new problems. So we turn our eyes on the Arctic,” he said.

Russia is also interested in Canadian technology for planes well-suited to the North – eyeing purchase of Bombardier’s technology or planes.

The countries, though, are not identical. Russia has 2.5 million northern residents – far more than Canada – and just a fraction are indigenous. Mr. Vasiliev laughed when recounting the lengthy session that sought to teach delegates about the complex web of Canadian provincial, territorial, federal and aboriginal governance. “This is whole world in itself,” Mr. Vasiliev says, smiling, adding legal experts “could build their careers, write books and show off how smart they are, just simply asking the simple question of how things are organized.”

He views melting Arctic ice as a melting barrier. “We should not see each other in Cold War terms. We are friends, we are colleagues, we are neighbours in the Arctic,” he said.

2. United States

Canada’s term returns the chairmanship to North America for four years, with the U.S. set to take over in two. U.S. SAO Julia Gourley said Canada, like the U.S., will push to improve the operation of the Council, as well as its public image.

“It’s clearly a priority for Canada, and it will be for us, too,” Ms. Gourley said.

The North American chairmanship will also be used to educate the world on Arctic issues through the council, she said – a more outward focus.

Ms. Gourley praised Canada’s push for a circumpolar business forum as “very innovative.”

She also raised concerns that the position of science may diminish under Canada.

“That might be something that’s a little different between Canada and the U.S. actually – science will be central to our chairmanship still,” she said in an interview, later adding: “I don’t really sense a threat to science under [Canada’s] leadership, but I do sense a diminishment of the priority.”

Finally, shipping is a key priority for the U.S., but Ms. Gourley said the council steers clear of discussing the Northwest Passage, which Canada claims but the U.S. argues is international water.

“We need, in the Arctic Council, to keep pressing the importance of safe shipping, and we need to press within the [International Marine Organization] so we’re hitting all the major shipping countries in the world, that shipping in the Arctic is something that should be a priority for the shipping community globally,” Ms. Gourley said. “Because lots of countries are going to ship through the Arctic, not just the Arctic states.”

3. Sweden

Canada’s term as chair marks Sweden’s end – many of the council’s task-list was nailed down in Kiruna, Sweden, earlier this year.

One is a focus on black carbon, a pollutant that drives climate change. The council’s black carbon working group is co-chaired by Sweden and Canada.

Swedish SAO Gustaf Lind departed Whitehorse Wednesday by saying it “has been a very good first meeting.” With the inaugural meeting out of the way, the projects are now the focus, he said.

“This is a first check-in, then we start the project and everything. Then things are sort of decided over the last six months. That's when the hardest effort and work are done over the two years,” he said. At that rate, Canada’s efforts will peak in spring of 2015 – just before the next federal election.

4. Denmark

In Denmark (and Greenland, its vast Arctic territory), Canada has an ally. Danish SAO Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen, previously the ambassador to Canada, treaded lightly around any wedge issues (saying only there are “different positions over the time” between Canada and Denmark on climate change) and backed many of the projects under Canada’s chairmanship.

In particular, that includes Canada’s overarching theme – the Arctic Council should work more for, and with, Northerners.

“The things that we discuss should benefit the people that live there. That’s also the kind of main thing of our strategy,” Mr. Vilstrup Lorenzen said.

Denmark is a major shipping nation, and is keenly attuned to the opening Northwest Passage and an effort to study shipping safety. But the country’s focuses are infrastructure, not geopolitics, Mr. Vilstrup Lorenzen said.

5. Finland

Through work in the Baltic Sea, Finland has expertise to share, SAO Hannu Halinen said. “You might say it’s a laboratory for the Arctic Ocean,” he said.

That means Finland has developed technology in oil spill clean-up and ice-breakers, he said. Countries such as Finland can offer expertise as the Arctic opens up, he said. “Not all the new actors there, the new players, possess these capabilities. So we have to look to training,” he said.

The country is an Arctic tourism hub, one where ski hills sit next to gold mines, he said. As such, Finland has backed Canada’s efforts to create a circumpolar business forum. “I think that’s a very exciting new area for the Arctic Council to take on,” Mr. Halinen said. Helsinki will host talks on creating the forum in December.

Canada has pledged to launch it in January, but Mr. Halinen cautioned against rushing into it.

6. Norway

In Norway, Canada has a fellow major oil and gas producer, one that emphatically backs the notion of development in the Arctic.

“Norway and Canada, we share the same perspective that people need jobs and economic development in the North,” said Else-Berit Eikeland, Norway’s SAO and former Canadian ambassador. “So, I think we share the same concept of sustainable economic development. That includes, you know, oil and gas, offshore, minerals, but it should be sustainable.”

The two countries joined to drag the EU before the World Trade Organization over its ban on the seal hunt (the EU attended the Whitehorse meetings but does not have formal observer status, with its seal hunt position said by some to by a key factor).

Norway’s needs, however, are different. The gulf stream makes Norway’s Arctic region ice-free in the winter, she said. Ten per cent of its people live in the Arctic but the majority are ethnic Norwegians who vastly outnumber the indigenous Sami people. Canada, in turn, has a lower proportion of Arctic residents but higher indigenous presence and much more territory.

“It’s very different than the Canadian North – huge, a different political history and much bigger social and political problems,” Ms. Eikeland said, stressing that each countries have their differences, but none are deal-breakers.

“What we share in the Arctic Council is much more important than one policy area,” she said.

7. Iceland

The Arctic officials are a closely knit bunch – the newest is Thorsteinn Ingolfsson, Iceland’s official who attended his first SAO meeting in Whitehorse. The Arctic is a key priority of the Iceland government, he said, making the Arctic Council a focus as well. “The Canadian chairmanship is quite ambitious,” he said.

The country is co-chairing the push to create a business forum, a move pushed by Canada, as chair of the council itself, but not actually led by Canada. Saying it’s “rewarding how advanced the work already is,” he says it’s not clear that the council will be ready as quickly as Canada hopes.

With shipping routes opening through the North, Iceland is among those concerned. “It's a worry for Iceland with regard to the environment. We of course very much emphasize the need to have safeguards with regards to incidents in the area,” Mr. Ingolfsson said. The country is preparing a proposal to be considered a search-and-rescue hub for the Arctic. “We don't know, of course, how soon things will develop. Some say the traffic will increase very much in the next 10 years. Others say next 20 years. But regardless, it takes infrastructure and preparations if you want to be in the game,” he said.

8. Gwich'in Council International

Joe Linklater is the Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in North Yukon. He represented the Gwich'in Council International, one of six aboriginal organizations given permanent participant status at the Arctic Council.

Mr. Linklater is among those pushing for more support to attend all the meetings of the council. “I think in Canada, we’re quite lucky as far as consultation and accommodation goes,” he said. “But hopefully what we can do at an international level is further that.”

The six aboriginal groups are permanent participants at the council, and work closely to build consensus with the eight Arctic nations. But the votes are only among the eight, something Mr. Linklater hopes might change some day.

“We, as decision makers, should be part of the decision-making process as it relates to these Arctic meetings,” he said.

He applauds the appointment of Environment Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq as Canada’s minister for the council. “She is from the Arctic, and she has a clearer understanding than previous chairs,” he said.

9. Inuit Circumpolar Council

The Arctic Council met in Whitehorse, but – as Duane Smith puts it – that’s hardly the Arctic.

“I flew 900 kilometres south to come to a meeting of the Arctic Council,” Mr. Smith says, sitting in the conference centre Wednesday after the meetings wrapped up. “They’re getting the impression they’re in the North. This is actually the sub-Arctic.”

Mr. Smith represented the Inuit Circumpolar Council at the Whitehorse meetings, and lives in Inuvik, NWT. He has suggested bringing SAOs up to Inuvik and other more remote communities, “to get a sense and an understanding of the issues, the conditions, the environment that people in those communities live in and experience on a day-to-day basis.”

So far, that hasn’t happened, but Mr. Smith is a supporter of the council’s work. He backs a push to involve more indigenous input in research, but is wary “to a degree” of the prospect of an increase in Northern shipping, because the Northwest Passage isn’t sufficiently mapped, and he believes the ships will accelerate the break-up of ice.

“They’ve going to continue to break up the ice, thereby contributing to the changing climate that everyone accepts and recognizes is happening already,” he said.

He is also among those pushing for “capacity” to contribute in the meetings, be it either travel funding or access to federal staff and scientists to help spur local projects.

The Council isn’t well known, he said, even in Canada. But its work directly affects their lives on the ground.

“It is a large untapped area. Vast resources. But there are people that do live there. And we are trying to ensure the ecosystems there are viable and sustainable, and that the Arctic Council is respectful of that as well as the different cultures that reside in the circumpolar Arctic, and working with us,” he said.

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