Arctic Council the wrong place for a ‘tough message’ to Russia

Lloyd Axworthy

Lloyd Axworthy was minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 2000, when the Arctic Council was established.

Canada will send a “tough message” to Russia about its “aggression against Ukraine” at the Arctic Council, which meets beginning Friday in Iqaluit. So said Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Chair of the Council, to Canadian Press.

This is grandstanding. It is also contrary to the council’s purpose and founding declaration which disbar it from addressing military security matters, and is a misuse of the Office of the Chair which serves all eight Arctic states – not the foreign policy of one. If anyone is to take the Russians to task it should be Rob Nicholson, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and he has other forums in which to make Canada’s views known. Sergey Donskoi, Russia’s Minister of the Environment, will be in Iqaluit. He is not the correct target of the promised tough message.

All of this may play well electorally and that’s what is probably going on here. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is using the North to generate votes in the South. But the way he is doing this is risky, for it may disrupt the signing and implementation of agreements on climate change and prevention of oil pollution that have taken Arctic states years to negotiate within the framework of the Arctic Council, a co-operative and consensus-driven forum.

It is easy to agree that President Vladimir Putin’s policy on Ukraine is abhorrent. In co-operation with its partners, Canada has embraced sanctions against Russia and recently sent troops to help train the Ukrainian armed forces. Certainly we have to stand up for democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine. But at the same time, we have to continue to do business with Russia, particularly in the Arctic.

With the ice cap melting, Asian and European states are looking to the north for energy and minerals and for strategic shipping routes. We can’t have a free-for-all in the Arctic. That’s why the Americans, who soon assume the Chair of the Council, want Arctic states to negotiate an agreement to co-ordinate national management of the Arctic Ocean and it’s fringing seas. The Arctic states have to co-operate if they are to manage what is going to take place in the region. This means working with Russia through the Arctic Council.

Perhaps even more important, the Arctic is the globe’s barometer for environmental and climate change. Just look at The Changing Arctic Environment by Canadian David P. Stone. Countries around the world need to know what the Arctic is saying. As the second largest country in the Arctic, Canada has a responsibility to help the world understand what the Arctic barometer is telling us. Again, this means working with Russia through the Arctic Council.

Formed in 1996 largely as a result of the efforts by prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, the Arctic Council is the premier international body in the region, and is a success by whatever standard one uses. In its zeal to be seen as tough, the government of Canada is abandoning the political consensus that co-operation and dialogue is the bedrock of circumpolar relations. If this is the case, Parliament should have a say.

There is another reason to defend the integrity of the Council. It is a forum in which Arctic Indigenous peoples – Inuit, Athabaskans, Aleut and others – are permanent participants, able to intervene in the same manner as states. They bring to the council their unique perspectives and traditional knowledge, to the benefit of us all. We have to shield Arctic co-operation from the vicissitudes of geopolitics, not use the Arctic Council to score domestic political points.


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