The new Arctic policy: Canada chooses a buddy

United States “our premier partner”


Canada’s new Arctic foreign policy statement, launched Aug. 20, offers a look at what Ottawa plans to do in the Arctic beyond exercising sovereignty and settling outstanding border disputes.

First, it’s clear that Canada wants a buddy to work with: the United States, “our premier partner in the Arctic and our goal in a more strategic engagement on Arctic issues,” according to the 29-page policy statement.

Canada wants to collaborate with the U.S. on issues related to the Beaufort Sea, on Arctic science, on aboriginal and northern issues, and on ”a common agenda that we might pursue when first Canada and then the United States chairs the Arctic Council starting in 2013.”

Many changes appear to lie ahead for the Arctic Council, from a forum for the eight circumpolar countries to talk about common issues into an international, policy-brokering body.

“We will pursue a greater policy dialogue within the council,” says the Canadian policy. “The council has traditionally played a strong role in science, research, monitoring and assessments, and the development of guidelines (e.g. for oil and gas) in some select areas.”

But Canada now wants the Arctic Council to encourage the implementation of guidelines, develop “best practices” and, “where appropriate,” even negotiate policy.

To this end, Canada says it will talk with other council members about changing the council’s structure and financing.

The Arctic Council’s chairmanship now rotates every two years from one member country to the next. There is no permanent secretariat and members finance the council, project by project.

“While the current informal nature of the body has served Canada well for many years, the growing demands on the organization may require changes to make it more robust,” says the policy statement.

The current negotiation of a regional search and rescue agreement— “the first ever attempt at a binding instrument under the rubric of the Arctic Council,” it notes— will serve as a test case for the council’s future.

At the same time, Canada says the central role of the indigenous permanent participants, like the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which has a non-voting seat in the forum, will not be “diminished or diluted.”

No major changes are needed in the how the circumpolar region is managed, the policy says, because “Canada does not anticipate any military challenges in the Arctic” and existing institutions, like the Arctic Council, can do the job.

But the policy document does mention the creation of a new Arctic regional policy and program centre at Canada’s Embassy in Norway, which opened last year to little fanfare and has maintained a low profile ever since.

The policy statement says this centre, staffed by two officials and three local hires, is part of “a broader concerted effort to support Canada’s foreign policy goals and commercial linkages through analysis, advocacy and out-reach—further enhancing Canada’s presence on Arctic issues abroad.”

The policy statement also says Canada will:

• Manage its Arctic resources including living marine resources such as fisheries, so they can become “a cornerstone of sustained economic activity in the North and a key to building prosperous indigenous and Northern communities;”

• Get involved in more health-related projects: Canada will play a lead role in the Arctic Council on a range of new health-related projects, including the development of a circumpolar health observatory, a comparative review of circumpolar health systems, and a comparative review of circumpolar nutritional guidelines;

• Recognize “the importance of indigenous knowledge” and the need to use it along with science to better understand polar bears and their habitat;

• Finalize a policy framework for Canada’s national network of marine protected areas that will guide five new marine eco-regions in the Arctic;

• “Actively contribute to and support” international efforts to address climate change in the Arctic;

• Strengthen Arctic science by establishing a “new world-class research station in the High Arctic;”

• “Engage with Northerners on Canada’s Arctic foreign policy;” and,

• Provide Canadian youth with opportunities to participate in circumpolar meetings.

DFAIT: Arctic foreign policy statement, Aug. 20, 2010

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