Looking Back: Canada’s Arctic Council Chairmanship

by Guest Blogger

April 20, 2015

By Alex Speers-Roesch, Greenpeace Canada Arctic Campaign Staff

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on the transition of the Arctic Council Chairmanship from Canada to the United States.

This week in Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, the torch of global Arctic leadership will be passed as the United States assumes the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum comprised of the eight Arctic nations, six Arctic Indigenous councils called Permanent Participants, and observer nations and NGOs. Founded in 1996 in Ottawa, its inaugural mandate was Arctic protection and sustainable development.

As we anticipate increasing global interest in the Arctic, its important to take a look back on the Canadian Arctic Council Chairmanship and reflect on the impact it has had on the people of the region and the rest of the planet.

Canadas Arctic Council Chairmanship: Bad for the Environment, Bad for Northerners

When Canada first stepped up to chair the Arctic Council in May 2013 the government claimed that the theme of its chairmanship would be Development for the people of the North and that Canadas chairmanship would put Northerners first. While there was some positive movement on important issues such as mental health and black carbon, under Canadas leadership the Arctic Council pursued several initiatives and policies that promoted the interests of big business, disempowered Northerners, and opposed serious action on climate change. This was done primarily through the creation of the Arctic Economic Council, refusing to take action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and promoting the extraction of Arctic oil and gas.

Creating the Arctic Economic Council

The Arctic Economic Council (AEC) was intended to be the centerpiece of the Canadian Chairmanship: a circumpolar business forum focused on small and medium enterprises and Indigenous businesses, according to government statements in early 2014. But when the rules and membership of the AEC were later announced, it became clear that the AEC would actually serve as a lobbying body for big business interests from outside the Arctic, particularly oil and other extractive interests.

The AEC is currently made up of 35 representatives, 21 of which are nominated by the Arctic states and 14 by the Arctic Council Permanent Participants. Of the 21 state nominees, there appear to be only three that are small- or medium-sized northern-owned businesses; the majority either represent or are themselves companies from the oil industry.

While the businesses initially included in the AEC were selected by the Arctic states and Permanent Participants, from now on the AEC will be an independent body accountable to no one but itself, and representing the interests of no one but its own member companies. The AEC selects its own membership and determines its own activities, without accountability to the Arctic Council or any other body.

The Arctic Economic Council has drawn criticism from many, including former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy and Mary Simon, a prominent Inuit leader and lead negotiator in the founding of the Arctic Council. They warn that the AEC threatens to undermine and supplant the Arctic Council, and in so doing shift Arctic governance away from the public sphere and into the hands of business interests. They believe the AEC may be part of an intentional effort to remove consideration of environmental and climate issues from international Arctic governance, and that it could provide multinational corporations with preferential access to Arctic policy makers.


Canada's Minister of the Environment and Arctic Council Minister Leona Aglukkaq speaks at a circumpolar symposium in March 2015

Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Arctic Council Minister Leona Aglukkaq speaks at a circumpolar symposium in March 2015


Making Climate Change Worse

Under Canadas leadership, the Arctic Council has not only failed to take serious action to address climate change, but it has taken decisive action to make it worse.

While there has been some positive movement to address black carbon and methane emissions, the Arctic Council refused to address carbon dioxide, which accounts for 76% of annual global GHG emissions. The Arctic states are themselves responsible for approximately 25% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions, and when observer states are included, the Arctic Council states are responsible for roughly 80% of annual global CO2 emissions, underscoring yet again the importance of their participation in a serious effort to reduce emissions now.

This failure has been criticized by all six of the Arctic Councils Indigenous Permanent Participants, who reminded the Canadian Chair of the Arctic Councils commitment to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, highlighted Arctic states lack of action to reduce emissions, and called on the Arctic states to elaborate a specific course of action on mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions that will be adopted by all Arctic Council member states as a firm commitment.


Members of Greenpeace protest the closed Arctic Council meetings in Yellowknife in March 2014, demanding public participation and stronger regulations on offshore Arctic drilling.

Undermining Arctic Council Goals at Home

Despite the Canadian governments claims at the Arctic Council about putting Northerners first and promoting development in the interests of Northerners, the Canadian government pursued domestic policies in contradiction to these stated goals. This is seen in the federal government and Arctic Council chair Leona Aglukkaqs support of oil exploration in the waters off Baffin Island, despite unanimous opposition from Baffin Inuit.

At the same time, the government approved a 71% funding cut to political organizations representing Inuit population. The national organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami blasted the Canadian governments actions, with ITK President Duane Smith stating that at a time when Canada is hosting the Arctic Council I find it inconsistent and unconscionable that this same government would seek to reduce Inuit collaboration on projects and weaken efforts to develop vibrant, healthy communities.

Canadas Chairmanship set a low bar for what the Arctic Council can and should do toward environmental protection. Through serious reform and keeping focused on important issues like climate change, the US Chairmanship has the potential to turn the Arctic Council into a meaningful forum on circumpolar issues.

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