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Canada, the Arctic Council, and rough seas

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An Inuit man watches an icebreaker, Nunavut, Canada. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-CanadaAn Inuit man watches an icebreaker, Nunavut, Canada. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Andrea Charron is Assistant Professor and Deputy-Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, Canada. She holds a PhD from the Royal Military College of Canada and has Masters degrees in International Relations from Webster University, Leiden, The Netherlands, and in Public Administration from Dalhousie University. This article originally appeared in The Circle 01.15.

In 1996, Canada was the first of eight Member States to chair a newly-founded Arctic Council. From May 2013 to April 2015, Canada again resumed the chair and set three priorities: to encourage development for the people of the North; to strengthen the Arctic Council, especially the capacity of its aboriginal members to participate; and to create an Arctic Economic Council. To evaluate Canada’s success as chair and, in particular, in achieving its three goals, Andrea Charron says the limitations of the Arctic Council must be understood.

The Arctic Council was created by a Declaration in 1996 (largely due to Canada’s leadership) to promote cooperation on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic. The Council, however, has “soft legal” status—meaning it cannot take any binding decisions or enforce any of its decisions. Secondly, while the Arctic Council has been instrumental in keeping the Arctic a zone of cooperation, outside geopolitical events (such as Russia’s action in the Ukraine) have proved a challenge to this cooperation. In addition, the ratio of Member States (those with a vote, although rarely exercised) and Permanent Participants (those afforded special decision-making status) to Observers (including states, organizations and nongovernmental agencies) is now terribly out of balance; there are now only 14 decision makers which means they are outnumbered by the 32 observers (and some very powerful ones at that when we consider China, Germany, Japan and others). Non-voters outnumber voters by more than two to one. Finally, the Council has always suffered from an inclusive/exclusive debate. Some think the issues of the Arctic region (such as climate change and northern development) would be better tackled at strictly a regional level while others believe that an international forum, like the UN, is more appropriate since such issues affect the entire world.

Canada’s two years as Chair are best described as place holding.


Canada’s two years as Chair are best described as place holding. While the Arctic Council cannot be expected to make grand pronouncements every year (it is voluntarily funded and has only recently benefited from a permanent secretariat), Canada’s attention to the Arctic has been lackluster. On the one hand, the focus it has directed on the people of the North is laudable. However, Canada’s priority was presented as development “for” the people not “with”, an unfortunate use of prepositions:

The official Canadian French version reads: “Le développement au service de la population du Nord “. De is translated as «of » and not « for » (which would be « pour »). The French version suggests input from Northerners will be sought whereas the English translation suggests their exclusion.

Perhaps “for” can be excused as simply a poor choice of words rather than an indication that Canada’s intent was to tell the people of the North what they need. While the development priority included safe Arctic shipping and sustainable, healthy communities, nevertheless that prepositional slip suggests that the underlying goal of Canada is to improve the economy of the North for state interests.

Canada achieved its third goal, the creation of an Arctic Economic Council. But this is a shift from the two goals of the Arctic Council: sustainable development and protection of the environment. Of course economics is related, even crucial to the goals of environmental protection and sustainable development, but the creation of an Arctic Economic Council has not been popular with all of the Arctic State members and exacerbates the exclusive/inclusive friction.

At the same time, action outside the Arctic Council is doing more, arguably, for the people of the Arctic. A little known agreement called the Minamata Convention – a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury– is especially important for the Arctic which has higher levels of mercury. And yet, while the US has ratified the Convention, (along with only eight other countries – from Africa, South America and Monaco), none of the other Arctic States – including Canada – have; nor have the Observer states. The Arctic Council, under Canada’s leadership, could have made ratification of this convention by all of its members – observers or others – a goal.

Meanwhile, the working groups of the Arctic Council are doing some very important work indeed. Projects include an Arctic biodiversity assessment and creation of offshore oil and gas guidelines. Volunteer funding from member and observer states, however, makes planning of these multi-year projects a challenge.

The Arctic Council has had other successes. The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic are examples of the Arctic Council coming together to create useful, guiding documents.

Perhaps more importantly, Canada should be commended for its diplomatic efforts. That the Arctic Council is still meeting despite geopolitical tensions between Russia and the five NATO Arctic Council Member States is a testament to Canada’s adept chairmanship.

What does the future hold for the Arctic Council?

Likely all future chairs will run into the same problem as Canada – the “low hanging fruit” issues have been picked. In other words, the issues that were not of vital national interest, but were readily agreed to by the Arctic States, have been tackled. This leaves some truly difficult and contentious issues, like fishing rights and climate change. Furthermore, the Arctic Council may be reaching a tipping point in terms of the number of observers versus decision-making members and Permanent Participants. Exactly how much weight is given to the ideas of Permanent Participants also needs to be considered.

What is more, the eight Arctic States are chary of an overly ambitious, “UN-like” Arctic Council. When the United States takes over as the next chair, US Admiral (retired) Papp, former Commandant of the US Coast Guard, has a Herculean task ahead of him. Appointed as the Special Representative for the Arctic by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Papp faces: a recalcitrant Russia; ignored/cash strapped Permanent Participants; eager Observer states who want more decision-making influence; and diversely-interested Arctic Member States.   His years sailing rough seas may be his best training yet as the US assumes the Chair in April 2015.

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