Most Arctic Council applicants pose little risk


We don’t know for certain if Canada will use its effective veto on the Arctic Council this month to bar the granting of observer status to the European Union, or any other applicant.

But it’s fair to say that Canada’s Arctic Council minister, Leona Aglukkaq, now faces pressure from those who want her to use her influence to ensure Canada does just that. This pressure comes from a sizeable number of her Nunavut constituents and organizations like Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

Her two-year term as leader of Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship, which starts May 15, will wrap up in May 2015, after a ministerial gathering likely to be held somewhere in Canada’s Arctic. You can count on the Conservative government to put on a splashy showcase for Canada, just a few months before a federal election that must be held Oct. 19, 2015.

She’s already said the council must evaluate new observer applicants according to criteria they agreed to in their May, 2011 Nuuk Declaration. She’s made a special point of citing this one: “respect the values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants.”

This strongly suggests that the European Parliament’s 2010 vote to ban seal imports, upheld in court last month, with a vague exemption for seals caught by subsistence hunters, would knock the EU out of contention.

But there’s more to this question than wounded feelings arising from the EU’s anti-seal regulation and the Nunavut MP’s re-election prospects in 2015.

Canada and the EU are in the final stages of a negotiating a big trade deal called the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. The Harper government — and Canada — needs this agreement far more than the EU needs it. That’s because Europe accounts for about 12 per cent of Canada’s trade, according to 2011 statistics. At the same time, Canada accounted for only 1.8 per cent of Europe’s trade.

This means Canada has far more to lose if the EU were to retaliate following a denial of its EU observer application. That could jeopardize economic renewal in regions like southern Ontario, where more than 200,000 manufacturing workers have been displaced over the past decade. It’s inconceivable that the Harper government could be unaware of this.

On the observer applications from China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and India, there appears to be no valid reason for the Arctic Council to keep them out.

These countries want in because their economic survival depends on ocean transportation and the maintenance of global shipping routes. Right now, they’re keenly interested in the Eurasian version of the Northwest Passage: the Northern Sea Route north of Russia. It offers cheaper, faster sailings between Asia and Europe — 46 commercial vessels made such transits in 2012.

At the same time, the Arctic Council is pondering measures to protect the Arctic marine environment, which many aboriginal people, and not only in Nunavut, depend on for food and the expression of cultural identity. Part of that will involve work that will flow into the development of a new legal instrument, called the Polar Code, which the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency, wishes to adopt.

So it’s not unreasonable for maritime nations to seek observer status within an organization that could influence new rules for the design and operation of Arctic-bound commercial vessels.

It’s also in the best interests of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples for these maritime states to be sitting inside the room at Arctic Council meetings and working group sessions.

Aboriginal people are represented at the Arctic Council by organizations — such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Arctic Athabaskan Council — called “permanent participants.”

These permanent participant organizations wield real influence. They must be consulted on agendas for meetings of Arctic ministers and senior officials. They may make points of order at meetings. They can propose projects and agenda items. They may contribute to the council’s working groups, where the real policy work gets done.

Observers, on the other hand, do not enjoy such privileges. They may listen and make statements. And they may make proposals, but they usually must do so through member states or permanent participants.

That’s why the admission of new observers to the Arctic Council poses few risks for aboriginal peoples. At the same time, if such states are not admitted, they’ll likely turn to forums and processes where aboriginal people are marginalized. And that likelihood does pose a risk.

But for aboriginal peoples, there’s one missing ingredient: stable, secure funding to ensure they can fully exercise the influence that the Arctic Council’s rules extend to permanent participants.

In May 2012, the Munk-Gordon group, after a conference in Toronto, recommended the Arctic Council adopt a new funding system for indigenous permanent participants, to help them sit in on all council working groups. Russia’s recent harassment of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples underscores why this ought to be done.

Canada should use its chairmanship of the Arctic Council to push this idea. It could be an essential element of Canada’s stated goal: development for the people of the North. JB

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