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By Tim Lougheed
We may have harnessed the ability to map our world from space with a precision in the order of a few centimetres, but that does not mean humanity has run out of frontiers. The rapidly changing Arctic remains a tantalizing terra incognita — its evolving environment only partly understood, its economic potential largely unknown, its place in human history an unsettling mystery.

Laval University scientist Louis Fortier, one of the key figures behind Canada’s push to open up this frontier, has dubbed the region “a new Mediterranean”. And, just as the Mediterranean Sea has for centuries served as a focal point of competition or cooperation among its bordering nations, so too is the Arctic Ocean on its way to becoming a global political lynchpin.

That status became more formal during the 1990s, as the eight countries with Arctic territory — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States — began to meet regularly for discussions about the future of the North. By 1996, this interaction had spawned the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for reviewing priorities such as economic development and environmental protection. Since then there have been plenty of priorities to review. Increases in the annual thinning and retreating of sea ice are widely regarded as a bellwether of physical changes that will alter the Arctic in unprecedented ways, such as opening up new lanes for shipping, new waters for fishing, and new lands for prospecting. The Council has emerged as a primary point of departure for dealing with these matters, a role that was highlighted in 2011, when its members approved the first legally binding agreement to govern search and rescue activities taking place on land, sea, or water.

Even more revealingly, the Council’s proceedings have expanded to include permanent participation by six organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples, as well as admitting other bodies as observers. Some 12 non-Arctic countries have now been given observer status, as have 20 governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The guiding role of council Chair rotates between the original eight member states every two years. Canada was the first to assume that post, and now, almost two decades later, our turn has come again. As further testament to how much the Council has evolved, the new Minister for the Arctic Council is Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk who grew up in Gjoa Haven, a town on King William Island made famous after its inhabitants taught Roald Amundsen the survival skills that enabled him to lead the way to the South Pole. Her family still lives there and she calls it home, a fact that will undoubtedly colour her contribution to the Arctic Council.

“Having been born and raised in Canada’s North, and having lived the aboriginal way of life, I think I bring a unique perspective to the table,” she said, speaking soon after the May 2013 meeting in Sweden that transferred the chair to Canada. “We have a real opportunity during our chairmanship to tell the Canadian story.”

That story is captured by the current chair’s stated theme: “Development for the People of the North”. Among other things, this theme emphasizes food security, especially the need to hunt animals that many non-Northerners would prefer to protect. Aglukkaq has little time for the romantic image of polar bears touted by Coca-Cola, which helps to portray the taking of these animals as an affront to Arctic wildlife, rather than as a key part of a lifestyle that has sustained Inuit for centuries. Nor does she countenance arguments that hunting must stop before changing sea ice patterns doom the bears to extinction.

“Nobody talks about the wildlife adaptation to change,” she said. “Also not talked about is that we have negotiated a land claims agreement for over 30 years that protects the land, the water, and the wildlife. And we’ve got a very comprehensive program in place that does that.”

Her view is echoed by Ron Wallace, a senior fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a charitable, independent research agency dedicated to a range of international issues. He insists that Aglukkaq’s appointment to the Arctic Council amounts to a declaration that native people are the principal players in northern affairs, superseding the ambitions of outsiders who would prefer to see the entire region turned into some sort of massive nature reserve.

“It’s really a phenomenal event,” he says. “It’s a huge change, not only in Canada, but across the whole North. The Inuvialuit and the Inuit people are slowly starting to take control of the agenda, and Leona is the front edge of that wedge.”

Wallace credits the current federal government with moving further and faster in this direction than any of its predecessors. By way of example, he points to the fast tracking of devolution in the Northwest Territories, which will see this region take on the full equivalent of provincial powers by April 2014. This accomplishment has also been watched closely beyond our borders.

“We’re now getting a devolutionary movement in Greenland that’s effectively modelled on what’s happening in Canada,” he says.

Writing in the National Post as Aglukkaq took on the chair, Wallace was even more pointed about the implications that are being demonstrated for all the world to see.

“The high-profile Arctic Council Chairmanship falls to a Canadian aboriginal woman and Cabinet Minister precisely at a moment when these issues will unquestionably emerge into this intergovernmental forum,” he wrote. “It’s not only high time that a distinguished northern aboriginal leader be allowed to assume the duties of Chairmanship of the Council, but that we should reflect with pride that it is Canada that has brought forth such capable, and diverse, aboriginal leaders to the global circumpolar diplomatic stage.”

Nevertheless, Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, has pointed out that the Council chairmanship must reflect the interests of all members. He has outlined a suggested agenda for Canada’s term which would do just that, bringing governments and indigenous populations into conversations that have never before occurred in an Arctic context, on topics like fisheries management, oil spill prevention, and the notorious haze cited as evidence of the atmospheric pollution that is changing the climate.

“As melting sea-ice opens the region to shipping and resource extraction, the Arctic Council has become essential; if it did not exist, it would have to be created,” wrote Byers in a paper for the Rideau Institute, a non-profit research and advocacy group.

He added that the presence of military forces is another fundamental feature of northern affairs, though it was explicitly excluded from the Council’s mandate. That position made sense at the time, when the ultimate political impact of this newly minted body was unclear. Byers suggests that the time is right for just this kind of added responsibility.

“Today, in quite different circumstances that include a marked decline in military tension as well as a successful track record on the part of the Arctic Council, the member states would be well advised to revisit that decision,” Byers advises. “Canada could and should initiate this discussion during its chairmanship of the Council.”

For his part, Wallace argues that the military remains an overlooked and under appreciated partner in the transformation of the modern Arctic. By way of example, he points to Operation Nunalivut 10, a joint mission between the Canadian Rangers, a northern reserve of the Canadian Forces (CF), and the Sirius Dog Patrol, a Greenland contingent of the Danish military. In April 2010, the two groups worked together on the sea ice off Ellesmere Island and Greenland, demonstrating their ability to coordinate complex manoeuvres in this challenging setting.

“It is perhaps regrettable that so few Canadians could witness the concluding ceremony,” wrote Wallace in a policy paper on Operation Nunalivut 10. “Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natyncyzk led the procession of Canadian Ranger snowmobiles and the Danish Sirius patrol dog team into Alert. Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak, Danish Rear Admiral Henrik Kudsk, former Canadian circumpolar ambassador and current President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) Mary Simon [at the time], and Brigadier General David Millar, took the salute from the arriving Ranger-Sirius patrol members. The occasion was further enhanced by the parachute appearance of CF air search and rescue personnel who demonstrated their capabilities to land with pinpoint accuracy. It was an impressive display.”

He acknowledged that many critics could regard these proceedings as more show than substance, a modest display of Canadian sovereignty in a new Arctic where the military and political stakes are high. Wallace maintains that it is precisely such displays that will overcome inevitable disputes, such as the debate between Canada and Denmark over ownership of tiny Hans Island, and resolve those differences in a tidy, satisfactory way.

“Through operations like Nunalivut 10, the CF may be accomplishing much more than a de-escalation of international political tensions in the Arctic,” he concluded. “The CF may be pathfinders for better operational relationships and understandings between southern and northern Canadians, as well as expanding the ‘northern dialogue’ among circumpolar nations.”

The Arctic could eventually offer up a showcase of this sort of geopolitical civility for others to witness. P. Whitney Lackenbauer, chair of the history department at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo and another fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said just that in his own National Post article commenting on Canada’s acquisition of the Arctic Council Chair. He referred to the growing number of non-Arctic countries in places like Asia that are monitoring the Council’s progress and weighing the fate of that region against the interests of their own region.

“Alienating Asian states will feed perceptions that the Arctic countries view the region as a private backyard, dismissing international interests and simply dividing the spoils amongst themselves,” he says. “Instead, Canada should work with its Arctic
neighbours to foster a sense of Asian Arctic-mindedness that is sensitive to the region’s unique environmental and human attributes. During its chair, Canada must look at the region through global, regional and national lenses to ensure that its interests, those of the Council, and those of a growing array of interested stakeholders are balanced and maintained.”

If that sounds like a heavy burden to bear, you get no hint of it from Leona Aglukkaq, whose enthusiasm for her new job is undiminished.

“The Arctic regions should be experts in the Arctic regions, as opposed to solutions we’re trying to get from the south,” she says. “We should be coming up with research and innovation in the North. So it’s an exciting time for the Arctic regions to be collaborating further, opening up those doors.”