The Canadian Arctic Council chairmanship: Lots of leadership, no followers

Heather Exner-PirotEye on the Arctic

This week Canada surprised the Arctic Council by replacing its chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, Patrick Borbey, halfway into the nation's two-year chairmanship.

I have to remind myself that this news is very much "inside baseball" -- of interest and relevance to only the most hard core of Arctic politics followers. How many people actually know that there are Senior Arctic Officials, that they have a chair, or know and care who that particular chairperson is?

But the event has much more significance than the replacement of any particular individual. It provides insight not only on the progress of the Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council, but on the Harper government’s approach to foreign policy in general.

What is an SAO?

First the context. Canada assumed its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2013. This marked the second rotation of the chairmanship amongst the eight member states, who have each now had one turn. Typically the Chair itself has been the Foreign Minister of the designated country; Canada broke from tradition by appointing Leona Aglukkaq, at the time the health minister and now the environment minister, for the obvious reason that she is from the Arctic herself, an Inuk who represents Nunavut in Parliament.

Ministers are generally very busy people, so the actual task of managing the Arctic Council has fallen to what are known as “Senior Arctic Officials” or SAOs. SAOs are typically higher ranking diplomats from foreign ministries and state departments and meet two to three times a year in the period between the biannual ministerials. Again, Canada broke from tradition by appointing not a senior diplomat from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), but the president of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) as the Chair of the SAOs for its term. This decision was linked to Canada’s priorities for its Chairmanship around "development for the people of the North" and its ambitions to establish an Arctic Economic Council. Aglukkaq is also the Minister responsible for CanNor and so Patrick Borbey was already reporting to her.

All of this was fine and dandy until last week when Borbey was abruptly transferred from CanNor to the Department of Heritage. Two days later, it was announced that Vincent Rigby, an Assistant Deputy Minister at DFATD with experience at the Department of Defense and recent positions related to Afghanistan, intelligence and strategy, would be assuming the role as SAO Chair. This has led to a lot of speculation on why Canada felt the need to make such a significant change half way through its chairmanship. It is not because things were running smoothly.

Taking stock of the Canadian chairmanship

Though it may seem strange from a Canadian perspective, Aglukkaq invited controversy in the Arctic epistemic community by choosing economic development as a priority for her chairmanship. Although the Arctic Council adopted as twin mandates both environmental protection and sustainable development back in 1996 with the founding Ottawa Declaration, it has focused primarily on the former. Part of this trend is historical -- the majority of the Council’s working groups were adopted from its predecessor, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, with a Sustainable Development Working Group tacked on afterwards; and part of it is practical -- the case can be made that a regional intergovernmental forum, like the Arctic Council, is much better placed to make progress on environmental and oceanic issues than on social ones. Development happens on a local scale, not an international one, after all.

But part of it was also a reflection of the different norms and realities of the North American Arctic versus those in the European Arctic, and between Ottawa on the one hand and the Nordic capitals and Washington, D.C. on the other. For Canada, economic development in the North is about poverty reduction and self-determination. But it seems many others see the Arctic primarily through a lens of fragile ecosystems and climate change, and conjure images of Big Oil, corporate greed and environmental disaster when economic development in the Arctic is discussed. Canada’s position was not helped by the fact that its government is led by Stephen Harper, a man who has become a global lightning rod for criticism on climate change and carbon emissions. (Russia would tend to side with Canada on the need for economic development but not on self-determination for indigenous peoples.)

If Canada’s direction was viewed generally with suspicion, its style seems to have needlessly provoked as well. It was a bold statement to choose an Inuk to lead Canada’s chairmanship, but by selecting both a Chair and the head of the SAOs from outside DFATD, it also looked like Canada was thumbing its nose at what the Council has become and what it has achieved by breaking from tradition. Somewhat predictably, the fact that the Arctic Council was no longer being managed by professional diplomats, and that there was dissonance between what DFATD was doing and what the Arctic Council chair was doing, led to some internal mismanagement of council affairs and frustration amongst the Arctic Council’s many stakeholders. I have heard rumors of this in the past few months -- the fact that the SAO Chair has returned to DFATD seems to confirm them.

Pressing ahead to 2015

The inauspicious dismissal of Patrick Borbey leads to several conclusions. First, that Foreign Ministries have shown themselves to be indispensable in running intergovernmental forums. The function of running the Arctic Council is different from the function of developing policy, with the former requiring diplomats and the latter requiring content experts. The SAO Chair needs to belong to the first camp. The appointment of Rigby is welcome in that regard.

Second, while I applaud Canada’s desire to shift the Arctic Council from a focus on environmental protection and sustainability to a focus on human development, it is clear that Harper, and by extension Aglukkaq, have had neither the political capital nor the diplomatic acumen to make such a shift a reality. In that respect, Canada’s chairmanship has shown lots of leadership but attracted no followers. This is characteristic of the Conservatives’ entire approach to foreign policy. They are willing to be unpopular, which is admirable. But their principled approaches are riddled with arrogance instead of compromise. A Canadian Arctic Council chairmanship under the Liberals, who lean towards multilateralism and seek to be admired, would probably have been more effective that that of the Conservatives, who lean towards unilateralism and seek primarily to be understood.

That said, it is entirely premature to cast the Canadian chairmanship as a failure. The Arctic Council is such a progressive, stable and consensual organization that I struggle to imagine what that would even look like. The greatest complaints are not about its mismanagement but about the proliferation of projects, travel, and activity and the growing demands on the Council’s stakeholders -- signs of an institution that is in demand and successful, not one that is floundering. Canada has moved several important projects forward and will have a list of accomplishments to present at the ministerial in Spring, 2015. The replacement of the SAO Chair will remain a very obscure interest. But this remains: Any illusions that Canada holds some kind of moral or intellectual high ground when it comes to Arctic affairs have dissipated during this chairmanship.

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