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Canada's business focus ignites debates as Arctic Council prepares to gather

The Canadian Press
As the world turns North, the Arctic Council prepares to meet this week with Canada at the helm. Delegates are split on whether business issues should be at the forefront. Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard photo

Creating a bigger presence for industry at the world’s premiere international forum on northern issues won’t distract from its work on environmental problems, says the Conservative cabinet minister about to lead the group.

“Absolutely not,” said Leona Aglukkaq, who will assume the chairmanship of the group of the eight nations that ring the North Pole starting on Wednesday. “That research, the work of interest to all the Arctic regions, that will continue during our chairmanship.”

Central to Aglukkaq’s plans for her two-year term heading the Arctic Council is the creation of an arctic business forum, which she described as a way for northerners and northern business to share ideas and solutions.

“We have a number of trade shows globally — Detroit cars, whatever — in different parts of the world and it’s all south,” she said. “What I’m proposing is a trade show forum, a business forum of Arctic to Arctic, an opportunity for private industry to exchange information on best practices on permafrost, on shipping, all of that.

“I think that’s a vital piece that’s missing from the research that’s being done today.”

Emphasizing local development would be a change for the council. In the 16 years since its creation in Ottawa, it has focused on international issues such as its 2011 search-and-rescue treaty and a pact on oil spill prevention expected to be signed Wednesday.

It has also conducted important circumpolar environmental research. Last week, it released the first major study on the acidification of the Arctic Ocean from greenhouse gases.

Arctic industry gap needs filling

But Aglukkaq — an Inuk from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut — said it’s time the council addressed the immediate concerns of northerners. “We can do science and research but if we’re going to make fully informed decisions, we have to ask industry, 'How are we doing?' I feel we have to close that gap.”

A bigger role for the private sector could be useful, said Sara French of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security program at the University of Toronto. She points out that it could be a private cruise ship that responds to a marine disaster.

“You have to look at the assets private sectors bring to bear because often, they’re the ones with boots on the ground,” she said. “It’s important to understand the role of the private sector in the North.”

More important, she said, would be Canadian efforts to live up to the promises they’ve already made, such as buying search-and-rescue airplanes that would enable it to respond to crises in its part of the North. The council also needs a better funding mechanism to enable it to handle everything on its plate, French said.

Wrong body for economic issues?

But the council is the wrong body to address economic development, said Michael Byers, an Arctic policy expert and one-time federal New Democrat candidate who teaches international law at the University of British Columbia.

“If you look at the Canadian government’s agenda, the development of northern communities, it’s almost exclusively the responsibility of the individual nation-states of the Arctic,” he said. “It’s not something that is necessarily going to be magnified greatly by co-operation between the nation-states.”

The council has bigger fish to fry that can only be addressed internationally, said Byers — oil spill cleanup, reducing black carbon deposition and regulating future fisheries.

“The Canadian government hasn’t realized this is a foreign policy institution,” he said. 

Byers said senior diplomats from other countries are already worried that Canada’s term will be a two-year holding pattern.

“The message I get from foreign diplomats is a real concern that two years might be wasted at a rather critical juncture.”

Duane Smith of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a non-voting participant in the council, said northerners are concerned about jobs but don’t want to lose what they’ve got.

“One of the areas that we do want to work on is maintaining and identifying strong, resilient ecosystems that we see ourselves as a part of and are dependent on,” he said.

The Arctic is growing increasingly important in the diplomatic world. In April, Iceland founded the Arctic Circle, a forum open to any country interested in the Arctic. China was one of the first to sign on.

Smith said he’s met with representatives from Singapore, Italy and Japan as well as China — all trying to win support for their bids for observer status on the council. “The world is turning North,” said French. “We think it’s positive.”

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.