Skip to main content

Lloyd Axworthy was minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 2000. Mary Simon was ambassador for circumpolar affairs from 1994 to 2003.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov are scheduled to be in Canada in late April. It will be the Arctic, not Ukraine, that's on their minds. Both will be in Ottawa, then Iqaluit for a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, the last such get-together before the council marks its 20th anniversary next year.

It is a crucial time for the Arctic. Several Arctic states, including Canada, are increasing their military capability to operate in the region. China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and several European states – accredited observers to the Arctic Council – are looking north for geopolitical reasons, including the possibility of transarctic shipping as climate change melts the ice cap and "opens" the region for potential development. Globalization is reaching into the final frontier. Arctic states know this and are themselves jostling to extend their continental shelf rights deep into the Arctic Ocean, as permitted through the Law of the Sea.

There is plenty of room for disagreements and some potential for conflicts. It is hugely important, particularly for northerners, that international co-operation continues to be the way to get things done in the Arctic. This means that the Arctic Council, established in Ottawa in 1996 as a result of Canadian diplomacy and currently chaired by Canada, should vigorously promote international co-operation.

Can Canada claim to have strengthened the council as it finishes its two-year term as chair and hands the gavel to the Americans? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Part of the problem is the absence of continuity in the Department of Foreign Affairs; four senior Arctic officials have led Canada's Arctic Council delegation in the past five years. Also of concern is a key Canadian initiative that may in years to come actually threaten the ability of the Arctic Council to promote international co-operation.

At Canada's suggestion, Arctic Council ministers agreed in 2013 to set up a task force "to facilitate the creation of a circumpolar business forum." Perhaps best seen as a referral network, such a forum could usefully promote the growth of small and local businesses to generate badly needed jobs for northerners. All well and good.

Chaired by Canada, the task force reported to the council's senior Arctic officials last spring, and recommended the establishment not of a business forum but something much more: an Arctic Economic Council, which had its first meeting last September. In addition to confusion caused by their similar names, the problem, depending on what the new Arctic Economic Council actually does, is that its mandate is virtually the same as that of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council was established to promote "co-operation and interaction among Arctic states" on common Arctic issues, in particular "sustainable development and environmental protection." Indigenous peoples have a unique status in the Arctic Council as "permanent participants," able to intervene in the same fashion as states, bringing their unique perspectives, values and traditional knowledge to bear. The Arctic Council is a solid success. Its many reports, including those on climate change, contaminants, shipping and conservation of biodiversity continue to assist northerners and influence national and international policy and law.

The Arctic Economic Council is to foster "sustainable development, including economic growth, environmental protection and social development." Last spring, it was given a mandate to consider "responsible resource development," which is precisely what the Arctic Council has itself been considering for almost 20 years. States and permanent participants nominate business representatives to the Arctic Economic Council, but this is not the same as the permanent participant status indigenous peoples enjoy in the Arctic Council.

Non-Arctic states are laying out their interests, primarily economic, in the region. If the Arctic Economic Council lives up to its billing, fulfills its potential and becomes the "heart" of the action, Asian and European states may well switch their attention from the Arctic Council (a body of national governments dealing in public policy) to the Arctic Economic Council (a body of business interests dealing with private policy). In light of its dismissive attitude toward environmental, climate and sustainable development issues – of key importance in the Arctic and effectively addressed by the Arctic Council – this may well be what the government of Canada intends. There are also serious concerns that the Arctic Economic Council will provide transnational corporations with preferential access to national governments.

When speaking in 1989 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), prime minister Brian Mulroney initiated Canada's push for an Arctic Council. He deserves real credit for doing so. In 1995, prime minister Jean Chrétien persuaded president Bill Clinton to bring the United States onboard, and that's what happened when the Arctic Council was set up in 1996. What will be Prime Minister Stephen Harper's legacy of international relations in the circumpolar world?