On 20th anniversary, experts say it’s time to review Arctic Council mandate

Over the past 20 years, the Arctic Council has proved to be “Canadian foreign policy at its best,” say the country’s top experts in Northern issues. 

But with the global political climate shifting and the race to claim Arctic territory heating up, one of the council’s founders says it’s time to revisit the mandate of the agency. 

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“It’s really important that the circumpolar people and their governments really retain a very strong leadership and direction of the council,” said former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)

“There’s a lot of really important issues on the table for the council to deal with,” said Lloyd Axworthy.

The former minister of foreign affairs, who signed the 1996 declaration which established the Arctic Council 20 years ago, is calling for circumpolar nations to come together and create a “revised and stronger council.” 

“I think the issues simply demand it.”

In particular, Axworthy says the council needs to broaden its scope to include security issues, while ensuring that the increasing number of international observers don’t drown out Northern voices.

Success based on cooperation

Since its inception, the overall objective of the Arctic Council has been to increase cooperation among circumpolar countries and include Indigenous representation from across the region. 

Over the past two decades it’s successfully negotiated two binding agreements, including one on Arctic search and rescue. 

This highlights the council’s “absolutely revolutionary” decision to include Indigenous groups, argues Michael Byers, an international affairs professor at the University of British Columbia. 

“Arctic search and rescue doesn’t actually matter very much to government officials living in Ottawa, Washington or Moscow,” he said. 

“But it matters a lot to Arctic Indigenous peoples.”

CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent

The Arctic Council has negotiated two binding agreements since it was established in 1996, including one on Arctic search and rescue. (Submitted by Natural Resources Canada)

Focus on the environment

The University of Calgary’s Rob Huebert, an expert in Arctic political issues, says the Arctic Council was “a tremendous step forward,” owing its success partly to a decision to exclude the region’s more contentious issues in favour of environmental concerns. 

“They picked something everyone could agree on,” he said. “Something at first they thought was small, but then subsequently through their work, was able to show was quite significant.” 

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United States Secretary of State John Kerry watches a traditional Inuit drummer while attending the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting Friday, April 24, 2015 in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The decision to limit the council’s scope was a tactic used to end a stalemate in negotiations with the United States, says Axworthy.

“I agreed at the time that security would not be in the mandate, in return for which they guaranteed or they accepted the participation of Indigenous people.” 

At the time, he says it was a necessary trade off, but “the time now is to review that.”

Russia-Canada political tension

In particular, he notes his concern about Russia’s increased military presence in the region. The geopolitical context raised tensions ahead of last year’s Arctic Council meeting in Iqaluit

Yesterday, at an Ottawa event to mark the council’s 20th anniversary, the current federal government said it was committed to maintaining “the crucial relationship that must exist between Canada and Russia.” 

Parliamentary Secretary Pamela Goldsmith-Jones read a speech on behalf of Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion. 

“Preventing scientists from these countries from talking is illogical,” reads a transcript of the speech later posted online. “Our government has put an end to this irrationality.” 

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Russian Pacific Navy ships sail near the Sakhalin Island during military exercises. Axworthy is concerned about Russia’s increased military presence in the Arctic. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/AP Photo)

The talk emphasized political change in the Arctic, including a desire by countries to take advantage of “major, new economic projects,” while stressing the council’s ability to foster cooperation.

“Nothing would be worse than [Arctic] countries trying to exploit the maximum instead of working with the other countries to promote responsible stewardship,” the speech read.

“Nothing could be worse than militarization based on mistrust between these countries that are neighbours.” 

Arctic Council ‘could be watered down’

With renewed interest in economic, transportation and development opportunities in the Arctic, the number of official observers has increased in recent years. 

“When we started the council there was probably one or two observers both from governments and some of the civil societies,” Axworthy recalled.

“Now, there’s an application list of 18 countries that want to become observers of the council. I mean, Singapore and Kenya and other places are lining up.”

That added interest presents a potential danger, says Huebert. 


Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt hands the gavel, which symbolizes handing the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, to Canada’s Minister of the Arctic Council Leona Aglukkaq. Now, the United States is chairing the council. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

“Because so many countries want to join, the question is whether or not they are flooding out other voices.”

Axworthy concurs, adding that it may be time for the Arctic Council to look at “a new kind of arrangement” where observers would be confined to meetings of a kind of “associate’s council.”

“I think it’s really important that the circumpolar people and their governments really retain a very strong leadership and direction of the council,” he said. 

“Otherwise it could be watered down and it could be taken over.”

Indigenous leadership important to council’s future

Arctic experts agree the council’s continued success will remain tied to the inclusion of Indigenous leaders. 

Byers, Axworthy and Huebert all point to Canadian Inuit leaders and Mary Simon, whose leadership in pushing for the creation of the Arctic Council was invaluable.

“Mary’s a very strong person,” said Axworthy. “As a foreign minister, I had to listen.”

Simon declined to be interviewed for this article, citing her new position as the Minister of Indigenous Affairs’ special representative on Arctic issues.

“There could and should not be a council,” said Axworthy, “unless Indigenous people are represented.”

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