Building Partnerships: Perspectives from the Arctic

Article excerpt

Canadians believe themselves to be a northern people, and that region plays a central role in our collective imagination and identity. For most of us, however, the association is more romantic than real. Canada's circumpolar ambassador reviews recent developments in arctic politics and institutions, and assesses the challenges to regional co-operation

In September 1996, ministers and senior officials from the eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States) and three international indigenous peoples' organizations met in Ottawa to inaugurate the Arctic Council and to sign a Declaration setting out the objectives of the Council. The Council is an international forum, based on the principles of co-operation and consensus-building, for circumpolar states collectively to address common problems and opportunities in the Arctic. In time, this organization should help to bring about sweeping changes across the Arctic region.

The Arctic Council will bring senior ministers of all eight Arctic countries and indigenous peoples' representatives together for the first time on a regular basis to discuss circumpolar issues. The importance of this should not be underestimated. Through the Council, the Arctic governments will focus on their priorities for the region and discuss these with one another, with a view to identifying common objectives and drafting joint plans. This political role for the Council has the potential to help Arctic states arrive at longer-range planning for regional co-operation, a critical requirement for dealing with such threats as the long-range transport of contaminants or such sensitive proposals as opening up the Northeast Passage to maritime shipping.

The Arctic: A Special Place

The north lies at the heart of Canada's heritage and identity as a nation. Canadians living in the south are stirred by a sense of northern identity. Even if they have never had the opportunity to travel to the north, they feel a sense of stewardship toward it.

Inuit and other northern indigenous peoples believe they are an integral part of the polar ecosystem and that the land is their aboriginal birthright. But they have always promised the land to their children. And for thousands of years, they have kept that promise. The land and the northern environment have remained basically as they have found it.

Today, it is increasingly difficult to keep this promise, yet northern indigenous peoples are determined to keep it. The Arctic Council offers a means for circumpolar states to join together to protect the Arctic environment, preserve the indigenous cultures that have grown up there, and improve the economic and social well-being of northerners.

The Changing Political Scene

For over 40 years, international Arctic relations were blocked by the Cold War. Now, the terms `East' and `West' have come once again to possess geographic rather than political or ideological significance. The constraints that the Cold War divide imposed for so long on co-operation in the Arctic have ceased to be relevant. With the end of that conflict, the Arctic has begun to emerge as a region in its own right, with its own unique problems, aspirations, needs, and opportunities for co-operation.

In Canada, the northern map is changing too. The process of political devolution has been accelerating, with territorial governments taking a growing role in all manner of northern affairs. The establishment of Nunavut as a distinct jurisdiction in 1999 will take this trend further still by providing northerners in the central and eastern Arctic with a greater opportunity to shape their livelihood and conserve the environment upon which they depend. At the same time, improved communications have brought the north more into the mainstream of Canadian life. Southern Canadians are much more aware than in the past of threats to the Arctic environment, of the social and health problems facing northern aboriginal peoples, and of the enormous riches and beauty of the north. …