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Arctic in Focus, from Ottawa to Oslo

By Bob Paquin

Canada’s North put me under a spell. Glimpses of ice sheets, rock, and water from an altitude of 30,000 feet on transatlantic flights have always been captivating. I’ve wondered about the people and the places of the North, musing over Northern lifestyles and the undeniable link that the people have to their vast, frozen land. However, touching down once again at my urban Canadian destination, the Arctic would recede from view.

That was until September 2015, when I began my current role as the head of the Canadian International Arctic Centre (CIAC), a team established in 2009 by the Canadian Foreign Ministry, whose work is entirely dedicated to the Arctic. Based in Oslo, but with CIAC officers also stationed in Washington and Moscow, the team strives to internationally promote Canada’s Arctic foreign policy and supports our network of Canadian embassies around the world as they aim to do the same. Working in sync with our Ottawa-based foreign ministry colleagues, our work pertains to Canada’s participation in the Arctic Council, but is equally focused on other multilateral, regional, and bilateral Arctic-related tasks, in collaboration with other similarly interested groups in government, private sector, and civil society.

The opportunity to live in Norway was not one I could have easily passed up. Norway is the perfect Arctic hub. Canada and Norway share a rich history: Norwegian polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen were among the first to explore Canada’s Northwest Passage and most remote areas. Amundsen and his crew were even stranded on King William Island, in the community now known as Gjoa Haven (named after Amundsen’s ship), for two years. And during his time there, Amundsen learned from the local Inuit. He came away with tools and knowledge on how to survive the harsh Arctic winters.

Even now there is continued Norway-Canada work going on in Canada’s remote Arctic. The exploration ship Maud, named for Queen Maud of Norway in 1916, is slowly making her way to the surface of the frigid waters in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, with plans to be returned to Norway. Her story is that of a retired explorers’ vessel, sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company as a supply vessel for the Western Canadian Arctic in 1925, and then ignominiously left to sink by 1930 in Cambridge Bay. Not the most spectacular of endings for such a storied ship, but she’s a symbol of brave exploration, polar cooperation, and adventure nonetheless.

Among experts there is frequent reference to the many “Arctics” which exist, including the North American, European, Russian, and Indigenous Arctics. Canada’s Arctic region differs significantly from the other Arctics, though we share many features with Alaska. For instance, Canada and Norway have distinct definitions of their northernmost regions, not to mention the contrast in population and livelihood. Norway’s land mass above the Arctic Circle is generally referred to as the “High North,” and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is known as the arktisk or Arctic region. In Canada however, we tend to claim everything “north of 60” (referring to the 60th parallel) and the northernmost regions of some of our provinces as our Arctic region. Norway’s High North is well integrated with the rest of the country, whereas Canada’s Arctic regions are remote, largely only accessible by air, and nearly a world apart in many respects.

Due to its latitude and the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, Norway’s inhabitants maintain a (mostly) comfortable maritime climate. Visiting Tromsø for the first time a year ago, I was shocked to discover long summer days and polar nights with no need to wear 16 layers of merino wool as insulation—a stark contrast to the sting of the -40C Canadian Arctic air I felt on my face in Iqaluit during my first visit this year, well into the spring. The very specific context of the Canadian North of course affects how we think and work on Arctic issues, including through our domestic and foreign policy efforts.

Another advantage of being based in Norway is the access we have to research institutions and NGOs. Arctic experts are everywhere, as I have learned over this past year, but Norway has a highly developed public-private partnership model, where academics are often working alongside government officials and international partners are often welcomed into the mix. It’s immensely helpful to keep up with current projects and happenings, and to create bilateral connections with Canadian partners in science, technology, academia, and social and cultural work. And of course, Norway has the advantage of hosting the secretariats for the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council, as well as the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat. It has become a key hub for the international Arctic agenda.

More generally, the Nordic region provides CIAC with yet another perspective from which to exchange experiences: the Sami. Alongside our embassies in the region, CIAC has maintained a long-standing regular dialogue with various Sami organizations. The Indigenous Peoples of Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the northwestern corner of Russia are often recognized for their traditional reindeer herding. The Sami face similar issues to Canada’s northern Indigenous Peoples: environmental changes, need for sustainable economic opportunities, and decisions made from afar that affect their traditional livelihood. The Sami have looked to Canada as a positive example of consultation processes and inclusion of Indigenous voices in decision-making, as well as tackling reconciliation. Canada’s focus on cooperation and renewed relationships with its Indigenous Peoples is point of pride for me, as a diplomat. CIAC is here to help—to share, to learn, to collaborate.

Arctic stakeholders and interlocutors alike have asked me about our work in mending relationships with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. It is an exciting time for Canadians. We have Inuit leader and former Circumpolar Ambassador Mary Simon as the Special Representative to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, serving as an advisor on a vision for a sustainable Arctic, including conservation and development goals and implementation strategies. Simon’s work will mark a huge step in promoting a healthier, sustainable future for Northerners.

As a Canadian focused on all things Arctic, I am thrilled to be in Scandinavia, close to where so much of the Arctic action is. From major international conferences, to one-on-one think sessions, to supporting our varied Arctic agenda priorities, I am struck by how very well situated we are. We have all of Scandinavia, the EU, and Russia as neighbors. We are in the same time zone as the majority of our Arctic state partners. We have access to research entities and polar networks galore. We have access to local cultures and communities. We also have access to a fantastic network of cross country ski trails and mountains to discover—but I digress.

The Arctic continues to be a region of increasing international interest, and we will continue to exert Arctic leadership focused on the issues outlined in a joint leader-level Canada-U.S. statement earlier this year. The CIAC team remains thrilled to be delivering on these goals.

*****

*****

Bob Paquin is head of the Oslo-based Canadian International Arctic Centre under Global Affairs Canada. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not represent the Government of Canada.

[Photo courtesy of  Claudia Regina]

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