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Impressions from Canada’s Senior Arctic Official

By Alison LeClaire

Even though I am new to the role as Canada’s Senior Arctic Official (SAO), I have a history with the Arctic from within our foreign ministry, and I am delighted to be back. From 1993-95, I worked as a desk officer on the International Arctic and Forest issues file. That work related to the Arctic Environment Protection Strategy, and since the governance and structure of the AEPS were folded into the Arctic Council, much of the language is familiar to me. Also familiar from those days is the remarkable spirit of collaboration that still thrives in the Arctic Council. What follows are a few of my strongest impressions from my first six weeks on the job, from the Arctic Council and Arctic Circle Assembly to working with Canada’s northern communities.

Format of the Arctic Council

Already being familiar with the Arctic Council from work in the run-up to its establishment, I knew who the key players would be and how the Council would work. What has now caught my attention is how well the format works. Indigenous representatives are at the table. Consensus-based decisions are made. Each Arctic state negotiates a balance between its domestic Arctic needs and the interests of the greater circumpolar region. For example, Canada’s Arctic interests and issues to address are vastly different from the concerns Sweden may have, and the same goes for including Indigenous voices. The Sami of the Barents region have very different relationships with their sub-national and state governments than those of the Inuit of Canada or the Aleut in Alaska. We are all aware of these differences and as a group work incredibly well to ensure perspectives are understood and addressed in the decisions we make. 

People First

We’ve all heard the (adapted) adage: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t necessarily stay in the Arctic.” It’s true. And there are people who are living through these changes and are in a position to guide us in making decisions that will impact them. Take, for example, the remote community of Kivalina in Alaska that is facing huge challenges as permafrost melts and seawater threatens to claim the land. Residents are facing a threat to their livelihood as a direct result of climate change. Part of our role as SAOs is to ensure that the Arctic Council’s work is relevant and responsive to the current climate, which involves taking into account how the decisions we make directly affect northerners. Increasingly, the Council is becoming dependent on the local and traditional knowledge that Indigenous representatives bring to the table. Having such a local emphasis is unique to a multinational organization. We often hear that it is difficult for “southern”-based governments to make decisions about policies that impact the North. The Arctic Council is an excellent example of how northern voices are not only heard but inform decisions in a meaningful way.

Science Matters

The Arctic Council’s scientific studies and research produce quality results. It is careful in laying out plans, executing meaningful projects, and producing outcomes that matter. Science-based decision-making is critical to the Canadian government’s vision of the Arctic. We understand how important it is to consider the facts and figures behind an issue prior to determining the best way forward. A big part of this process also includes incorporating traditional knowledge into the work of the Council. A local tip from a recent fishing trip provided the necessary insight that led to the recent discovery of the lost Franklin expedition ship, the HMS Terror, in Nunavut’s Terror Bay. First person experience in environmental changes and shifts in wildlife habits are also extremely valuable to science and research, and lead to responsible decision-making. 

Global Interest in the Arctic

Earlier this month, I traveled to the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland. The sheer size of this conference—over 2,000 participants—was indicative of the level of interest in the region. Arctic and non-Arctic states alike were represented; each promoted their interests via keynote speeches, panel discussions, visual displays, and good, old-fashioned networking. This global interest is relatively new. Twenty years ago, the Arctic Council, along with its Permanent Participants and Observers, was relatively small and little known. It had an environmental mandate with little emphasis on sustainable development compared to today. The non-Arctic states are actively engaged in contributing to a wide array of scientific monitoring and assessments, action to mitigate climate change, and promoting responsible resource development. Had someone told me in 1994 that Singapore and India would become Observers to the Arctic Council, I would have seriously questioned those states’ interests. Now, we have come to anticipate pursuit of greater involvement in Arctic affairs. Challenges and opportunities in the Arctic are, while mostly local and regional, increasingly becoming a global interest.

Engagement beyond the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council is not necessarily the one and only venue at which the Arctic may be discussed. Various partnerships between states and multilateral engagements are critical to addressing specific issues. For example, all eight Arctic states meet at the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, independent of the Arctic Council. Ongoing Arctic Fisheries discussions include Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark (representing Greenland and Faroe Islands), Iceland, China, Japan, South Korea, and the EU. These meetings demonstrate how important partnerships and cooperation outside the Council are to tackling issues that fall outside its mandate. The level of commitment demonstrated by these states, along with sub-national governments, is impressive. For their part, Canada’s three northern territories (Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and Yukon) and three provinces with distinctly northern communities (Newfoundland, Quebec, and Manitoba) are now seeking to further engage on Arctic matters internationally. We value the input and resources that these domestic partners have committed to the region at large. Additionally, northern Indigenous Peoples are absolutely critical to the decision-making process of the Council. Non-governmental organizations in Canada also play an important role; the synergies developed in public-private partnerships are imperative to successfully implementing projects and ensuring a smooth road of policy-making ahead.

I’m pleased to be back on the Arctic file. As a Senior Arctic Official, I am proud to say that I will be part of the action as the Council continues to emphasize existing relationships with Indigenous Peoples and residents of the Arctic, engages in new projects, and collaborates to ensure that the region is responsibly managed. People live there, businesses operate there, and some say it is ground zero for climate change. I look forward to playing a part as the region evolves during my time as Canada’s SAO. 

*****

*****

Alison LeClaire is Canada’s Senior Arctic Official. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely her own and do not represent the Government of Canada.

[Photo courtesy of Arctic_Council]

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