Arctic Council Chair Leona Aglukkaq and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Iqaluit for the Arctic Council Ministerial on April 24, 2015. Photo: U.S. Dept. of State/Public Domain.
Arctic Council Chair Leona Aglukkaq and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Iqaluit for the Arctic Council Ministerial on April 24, 2015. Photo: U.S. Dept. of State/Public Domain.

Last Friday, the ninth ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council conference took place in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. Ministers from the eight Arctic Council member states, representatives of the permanent participants convened under frigid blue skies in Nunavut’s capital, which is surprisingly still several degrees under the Arctic Circle. The Canadian hosts recapped their two-year chairmanship – a period summed up by its theme, “Development for the People of the North” – before passing the torch to their Arctic neighbor, the United States, which will serve as the next chair of what is the leading international organization within the region.

As the first entry in a two-part series on the Iqaluit ministerial, this post will look back to compare this year’s ministerial meeting with the previous one in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2013. In my second entry, I’ll consider what the American chairmanship promises to hold over the next two years.

Shifting gazes

At the 2013 Kiruna ministerial, much of the attention focused on actors outside the Arctic. In the lead-up to the spring meeting, five Asian countries, Italy, the European Union, and even a number of non-profit organizations made their case for being observers to the Arctic Council. Ultimately, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Italy were successful, while the EU’s saga is still ongoing.*

Geography is one reason why Sweden may have taken a more global perspective of the Arctic. Unlike Canada, Sweden is not an Arctic coastal state. Norway hems it in on its north. Without a shoreline on the Arctic Ocean, Sweden is arguably less drawn to the concept of the Arctic Ocean as a “Polar Mediterranean.” Trans-Arctic shipping routes would not directly benefit Sweden, whose ports all lie on the Gulf of Bothnia or the Baltic Sea. Thus, Sweden is more likely to look south to the rest of the world even when it is thinking about northern development. The mining town of Kiruna, for instance, has been connected to other Swedish cities by rail since 1899. The rest of the world has been rather close at hand for over a century.

For Canada’s Arctic, however, the world beyond the north still seems distant. The only way to travel to the south from Iqaluit is by boat or plane, and talk of a highway to Manitoba still is just hot air. No railroads crisscross the three territories that comprise the Canadian Arctic. As this map shows, there are only a handful of all-weather highways in the Canadian Arctic, most famously the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories (which is currently being extended to Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet on the Arctic Ocean). During its two-year chairmanship, Canada’s rhetoric has made it seem that the key to improving the livelihoods of people in this remote and sparsely populated region is not currying favor with non-Arctic stakeholders, but rather by charging ahead with “development for the people of the North” through mechanisms such as “circumpolar business partnerships.”

Yet more than geography has motivated the Arctic Council’s regional rather than global focus over the past two years. The strength of Canada’s indigenous peoples in both numbers and political clout has helped, too. Sweden has an indigenous Sami population with an official organization, the Saami Council, but it is not as powerful of a domestic or even circumpolar political force as Canada’s indigenous peoples’ organizations. In fact, three of the Arctic Council’s six permanent participants have their roots in Canada: the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Gwich’in Council International, and the Arctic Athabaskan Council. Furthermore, whereas Canada appointed Leona Aglukkaq, a politician of Inuit descent, to serve as chair during its tenure, Sweden did not appoint a Sami to the position.

In essence, the Canadian chairmanship shifted the gaze of the Arctic Council inwards and also towards maritime and telecommunications issues. This can be read as a symbolic attempt by Canada to demonstrate power over the Arctic Ocean and the country’s vast distances. To illustrate, the Iqaluit Declaration (more on this below) notes the member states’ approval of the “Framework for a Pan-Arctic Network of Marine Protected Areas” and the “Arctic Marine Strategic Plan for the period 2015-2025 as a framework to protect Arctic marine and coastal ecosystems and to promote sustainable development in the region.” Though Canada may have some genuine environmental concerns, its government has also used environmental measures for geostrategic aims before, as it did with the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act in 1970.

Telecommunications were also an issue at Iqaluit and not Kiruna because while Canada’s North still lags in internet connectivity, Sweden’s Arctic is actually a hotbed for internet companies, including Facebook, which has a data center in Luleå. Server farms dot the cold, energy-rich, well-connected region of northern Scandinavia while residents in Cambridge Bay struggle with some of the slowest internet speeds in the developed world. Accordingly, the Iqaluit Declaration notes the Council’s decision to “develop a circumpolar infrastructure assessment as a first step in exploring ways to improve telecommunications in the Arctic, and report to Ministers in 2017.” With improved internet speed thanks to planned subsea cable projects like Arctic Fibre, residents in the Canadian North may one day be better able to do things like take courses online or speak to a doctor over Skype without having to leave home.

Of visions and declarations

One of the major documents to emerge from each ministerial is a declaration named after the location of the meeting. Each declaration is signed by a representative from each of the Arctic Council member states, meaning that all agree to its contents in principle. At a broader scale, declarations tend to be fairly steady from one ministerial to the next. Dig a little deeper, and differences that speak to each chair’s particular agenda begin to emerge.

The preambles of the 2013 Kiruna Declaration (PDF) and the 2015 Iqaluit Declaration (PDF) were broadly similar. Each emphasized the importance of peace and cooperation, sustainable development, the Arctic’s diversity and the importance of its indigenous peoples, concern for global greenhouse gas emissions, and the Arctic Council’s progress in responding to “challenges and opportunities.” The Iqaluit Declaration’s preamble also honed in on the specifics of tackling climate change by recognizing the importance of reaching an international climate agreement in Paris in December 2015 and stating the council’s determination to limit global average temperature increase to 2C.

After the preamble, however, the two declarations diverge significantly, reflecting the difference in perspectives between the Swedish and Canadian chairmanships. The Kiruna Declaration’s two headings were “Improving Economic and Social Conditions,” “Acting on Climate Change,” and “Protecting the Arctic Environment.” A key paragraph stated:

“Welcome China, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore as new Observer States, and take note of the adoption by Senior Arctic Officials of an Observer manual to guide the Council’s subsidiary bodies in relation to meeting logistics and the roles played by Observers.”

The 2013 Kiruna ministerial also released the Kiruna Vision (PDF), an official Arctic Council document that is essentially a vision statement for the Arctic. It manages to be simultaneously regionally aware and cognizant of the Arctic’s global stature and the global interest in the region. One sentence contends:

“The Arctic is changing and attracting global attention and as we look to the future, we will build on our achievements and will continue to cooperate to ensure that Arctic voices are heard and taken into account in the world.”

In contrast, the Iqaluit Declaration reads like an extended version of the theme of “Development for the People of the North.” The declaration’s headings are “Sustaining Arctic Communities,” “Protecting the Unique Arctic Environment,” and “Building a Stronger Arctic Council.” The first line after the preamble notes the establishment of the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), the Canadian chairmanship’s signature achievement. The new body concretizes Canada’s vision of northern development within the official edifices of the Arctic Council. Although the AEC may have board members, a forthcoming permanent secretariat in Tromsø, three working groups, a slogan (“Fostering Circumpolar Business Partnerships”), Twitter account, and website, it still does not have funding, meaning its future may be in doubt despite America’s promise to continue to support it.

Sergey Lavrov’s day off

Some might argue that Sweden’s concern for the globe-spanning nature of climate change and warm welcoming of non-Arctic countries distracted from issues within the region – a sort of “wag the dog” effect in the Arctic. But at the other extreme, Canada could be accused of navel-gazing with its domestic focus, which may have undermined international cooperation in the Arctic. Two of the Arctic Council’s permanent members, Russia and Sweden, sent representatives other than their foreign ministers to the Iqaluit ministerial. The particular absence of the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, received a lot of attention in the Western media. To get to the bottom of the story, CBC News interviewed Michael Byers, an international law professor and Arctic expert at the University of British Columbia, who concluded that tensions over Ukraine were not the reason Russia for Lavrov’s absence. Instead, the provincialism of the Canadian chairmanship was at fault. Byers argued, “You can’t really blame him (Lavrov) for saying ‘I don’t need to be there’…The Russians don’t consider that anything important about foreign policy will be done in Iqaluit.” In Lavrov’s place was Sergei Donskoi, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Ultimately, Donskoi was probably a more relevant person to send to Iqaluit due to his expertise in managing a department that controversially combines management of both natural resources and the environment. In other countries, including Canada, these two issues are usually managed by separate departments to avoid conflicts of interest. Yet Canada has been accused of increasingly sacrificing its environment to oil and gas development. Perhaps Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is already taking a page out of Russia’s book by treating the environment like a natural resource to be dug up out of the ground and exported abroad for combustion and consumption.

As with anything in the Arctic, though, nothing stays for long. Rotating the chairmanship of the Arctic Council every two years makes doubly sure of that. With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promising in Iqaluit, “It is not going to come as a surprise to anyone that addressing climate change is a key pillar of the United States chairmanship program, just as it is, in fact, a key part of United States foreign policy writ large today,” climate change will likely unseat economic development as the issue at the top of the agenda at the Arctic Council over the next two years. In my next post, I’ll look into the future directions of the Arctic Council under its new U.S. chairmanship.


*The EU’s application was technically approved in 2013 but disputes with Canada over its seal fur import ban delayed the full awarding of observer status. This month In Iqaluit, Leona Aglukkaq announced, “I can start off by saying that Canada supports the EU application for full observership.” Even though the Canadian obstacle is finally out of the way, Russia may now block the EU’s admission due to tensions over Ukraine.


From Kiruna to Iqaluit: Arctic Council goes from looking out to looking in

  1. The railroad from the mining town of Kiruna, going through Norway to the Norwegian port city Narvik. Sweden is therefore dependent on ports located in the Arctic waters!

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