Arctic report: “Canada to take helm of Arctic Council as region heats up”

By Randy Boswell September 25, 2012

Thursday’s event, hosted by the Ottawa-based think-tank the Rideau Institute, will feature a keynote address from former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, a leading figure in the 1996 founding of the Arctic Council and now president of the University of Winnipeg.

With the Conservative government’s foreign policies already under a critical spotlight this week, a conference on the future of the Arctic to be held Thursday in Ottawa will urge Canada to assume a new leadership role on the circumpolar stage at a time when the remote region is heating up — politically and literally — like never before.

Canada is set to begin a two-year term in 2013 as chair of the Arctic Council, the eight-nation body steering the region’s emergence as an economically and strategically important part of the world, a place increasingly accessible — thanks to a sustained, record-setting thinning and retreating of sea ice — to shipping and tourism, oil and gas exploration and military activity.

Thursday’s event, hosted by the Ottawa-based think-tank the Rideau Institute, will feature a keynote address from former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, a leading figure in the 1996 founding of the Arctic Council and now president of the University of Winnipeg.

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper “has worked hard to show Canadians that it cares about the Arctic,” said Rideau Institute president Steven Staples. “It now has an opportunity to show that Canada’s national interests lie in greater co-operation in the North. I hope that the Harper government embraces this opportunity that the Arctic Council’s leadership provides.”

Axworthy has previously pressed the federal Conservative government to avoid militaristic postures in asserting Canadian sovereignty in the North and to pursue a more collaborative, internationalist approach to addressing the complex array of challenges — economic, environmental, jurisdictional — that confront the rapidly changing Arctic.

The conference discussions will be framed by a provocative new paper from University of British Columbia polar affairs specialist Michael Byers, author of Who Owns the Arctic? and a leading promoter of an expanded and strengthened Arctic Council as the best international mechanism to monitor and regulate natural resource development in the region.

In his new paper, provided to Postmedia News, Byers argues that Canada should lead the creation of a new “Arctic Ocean Fisheries Organization,” under the auspices of the Arctic Council, to protect and manage what could become — largely due to climate change — a lucrative new international fisheries resource in the central Arctic Ocean.

“In the face of scientific uncertainty as to how fish populations will respond to changing water temperatures and ice conditions, an international agreement on fisheries protection and management for the Central Arctic Ocean (i.e., beyond 200 nautical miles) is needed.”

Byers argues, echoing a similar call issued earlier this year by the U.S.-based PEW Environment Group. “Ideally, such an agreement would be negotiated and implemented before any commercial fishing commences – and before the interests of non-Arctic fishing nations become vested in this uncertain and inherently fragile fisheries frontier.”


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Byers also urges the Arctic Council to oversee strict measures to not only prepare for future Arctic oil spills and to respond effectively to such accidents, but also to force petroleum companies working in the region to shoulder most or all of the potentially enormous costs of cleaning up any disaster.

Thursday’s meeting will also explore whether the eight founding nations of the Arctic Council — Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland — should grant “observer” status to China, the European Union and other nations eager to tap Arctic resources and participate in decision-making about shipping, economic development, environmental protection and other issues.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council and other Arctic aboriginal groups from the region are “permanent participants” of the council; Britain, France and a handful of other nations are already formally included as observers.

Byers concludes in his paper that it’s time to admit China and the European Union as permanent observers to the Arctic Council. The EU was recently blocked from joining after Canada and other northern nations objected to its ban on seal products as a failure to recognize the industry as sustainable and culturally important for Canada’s Inuit.

“China and other non-Arctic countries are fully entitled to navigate freely beyond 12 miles (19 kilometres) from shore, to fish beyond 200 miles (320 km) from shore, and to exploit seabed resources that lie beyond the continental shelf,” Byers states in the paper. “China is respecting international law and has legitimate interests in the Arctic. Its request for permanent observer status should be granted forthwith – and Canada should make this a priority of its chairmanship of the Arctic Council.”

Thursday’s conference represents a growing interest in Canada’s impending role as chair of the organization it was key to creating.

Earlier this year, the Walter and Gordon Duncan Foundation and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs hosted a conference exploring how Canada should use its leadership role to reshape the Arctic Council in the coming years.

And another of Canada’s leading experts on Arctic affairs, University of Calgary political scientist Rob Huebert, recently co-authored a study for the U.S.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions that urged the Arctic Council to “eliminate its existing prohibition on discussing military security issues” under Canada’s chairmanship.

Canada’s turn at the helm will follow the completion of a full, 16-year cycle since the Arctic Council’s creation, during which each of the eight member countries have served at least once as chair.

Canada previously headed the council from 1996 to 1998.

“Canada was the initiator of the Arctic Council,” Byers noted in an interview, recalling the September 1996 meeting hosted by Axworthy that led to the signing of the Ottawa Declaration launching the organization.

The council “is maturing into a regional organization,” he said, and “there is considerable potential” to expand its role under Canada’s leadership to better address issues that have become increasingly urgent as a result of melting sea ice and increased access to the region.

“There is a very real sense,” he said, “that the issues have become more important and pressing than they were back in 1996.”


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