Without a handful of Greenpeace demonstrators and their sky-blue banner to draw public attention, a three-day meeting of the Arctic Council might have passed beneath the radar of most Yellowknifers.
“No more hiding behind closed doors,” the Greenpeace banner admonished, to no avail, as councillors huddled behind closed doors in the legislative assembly last week.
The secretive intergovernmental forum comprised of Russia, Canada, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and the United States did not make its agenda public and all meetings were closed to the public and media.
“The secrecy is disturbing,” said Kiera-Dawn Kolson, a Dene woman who has become the public face of Greenpeace in the NWT.
“There is a lack of transparency; people are not being engaged. Ideally, the Arctic Council meeting would mean protection of our culture and environment, and putting efforts into renewable alternatives, so that we have environmental and job security for future generations.”
Instead, Kolson said the Arctic Council and its member states appear to be focused on opening the Arctic to increased mining and oil and gas development.
“When our communities hear development, the first things that come to mind are money and opportunities – that’s the big push,” Kolson said. “But these are boom-bust situations and I don’t think the communities truly understand the bust side.”
Historically unwelcome in the North because of its past opposition to the fur harvest, Greenpeace has turned over a new leaf, Kolson said, and is reaching out to indigenous communities with new tradition-friendly policies.
“One of the parts of the campaign that we’re proud of is that we’ve implemented indigenous peoples policy that supports not only treaty rights and stewardship responsibilities, but also the right to subsistence hunt in their communities. This is a huge step that will show that this generation is not the generation of before,” Kolson said.
For that reason, Greenpeace passed on the opportunity to demonstrate at the city’s Snowcastle, where Arctic Council members took a break from their deliberations for a chilly social evening of stew and bannock and an exhibition of fur garments on Wednesday.
The fur show was a proud moment for Dave Ramsay, minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, who was swathed for the occasion in a luxurious coat crafted from fishers harvested in the Northwest Territories.
“The Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur program and Take a Kid Trapping program have been a great success,” Ramsay said.
“We’ve been selling fur at record prices; that money goes back into small communities where there isn’t a lot of industry or opportunity for employment. Three thousand kids across the territory took part in the trapping program. It’s important to get kids out on the land where they can understand the importance of trapping and fur harvesting. We see a bright future.”
There was speculation before the Arctic Council session began that Russia’s invasion of the Crimea might upset the agenda, but Ramsay saw no evidence of that at a formal dinner hosted by the federal government, and the mood at the Snowking’s castle was relaxed.
“There is no politics at these meetings,” said Ramsay, who sees the council as an opportunity to “develop synergies technology, research and economic development.”
“There is a lot of interest in the North and its resources and we’re looking at how we connect business opportunities to those who need them. We could benefit from relationships with other countries around the circumpolar world that have had experience building infrastructure in the Arctic, and growing an economy,” he said.
“We have resources that need to get developed. Other countries have done it. Russians are very prominent in the Arctic; they have seaports, military installations. We’ve just scratched the surface. We have a long way to go.”