Battle begins over agenda as Canada assumes Arctic Council chairmanship

Battle begins over agenda as Canada assumes Arctic Council chairmanship
New Arctic Council chair Leona Aglukkaq signs the Kiruna Declaration on May 15 in Sweden.Photo: Arctic Council.

As Sweden moves over to let Canada in as chair of the Arctic Council, international voices are adding to the fray of national opinion on what direction new chairperson Leona Aglukkaq should take the intergovernmental body of eight Arctic states.

Aglukkaq reiterated last week that the theme of Canada’s chairmanship for the next two years would be “development for the people of the North,” with a focus on “responsible Arctic resource development, safe Arctic shipping and sustainable circumpolar communities.”

Those priorities were reflected in the secretariat’s official Kiruna Declaration made May 15 from Sweden, which begins with a focus on economic and social development before moving on to the other priorities of acting on climate change, protecting the Arctic environment and strengthening the Arctic Council.

Under Aglukkaq – the council’s first indigenous chairperson – the Canadian chairmanship will include the establishment of a Circumpolar Business Forum to provide opportunities for business to engage with the council.

Work will also continue on oil pollution prevention and addressing short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon and methane. Last week, council states signed a new, legally-binding agreement on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, meant to improve procedures for combating oil spills in the Arctic.

Not everyone is supportive of the pro-development stance being taken by Aglukkaq. In a statement released last week, Greenpeace accused Canada of using a forum meant to protect the environment and health of Arctic peoples to advance industrial activity.

“We will not stand by and let the Harper government use the next two years to advance its destructive industrial agenda at the Arctic Council,” said Christy Ferguson, Arctic campaign coordinator with Greenpeace Canada.

“Decisions about what is safe and sustainable for this region should not be made by companies determined to profit off its destruction. The Arctic Council should be a forum for preventing environmental disasters like oil spills and fighting climate change – not facilitating them.”

Canada’s New Democrat opposition also contested bringing business into the mix, saying climate change and social development must remain top priorities for the Arctic Council.

“Canada must build on Arctic Council’s successes in climate research, search and rescue coordination and oil spill prevention,” said NDP Northern Development Critic Dennis Bevington, MP for the Western Arctic. “The Conservatives are moving away from that agenda to a business-only focus.”

Southern nations given observer status

Canada’s new chairmanship is not the only thing to have changed at last week’s Arctic Council meetings. China, India, Japan, Singapore, Korea and Italy were given observer status to the council, becoming the first nations nowhere near the North to join.

Though the European Union has been tentatively granted observer status, there are concerns about its ban on Canadian seal exports.

Ministers of the council said the inclusion of countries interested in the energy resources available in the Arctic will not get a free ride by becoming observers to the council, which serves as a protector of the region’s fragile environment and indigenous populations.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said at the meeting. “By becoming an observer, you’re also signing up to the principles embodied by this organization.”

Aglukkaq reiterated her concern with adding new parties to the council, saying the diplomatic body was established “by Northerners, for Northerners, before the Arctic was of interest to the rest of the world.”

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