The Arctic Council Under Canada’s Chairmanship

Thai Nguyen
Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division

As Canada’s 2013–2015 chairmanship of the Arctic Council comes to an end, the country hands that role over to the United States at the biennial Arctic Council ministerial meeting on 24–25 April 2015 in the Nunavut capital of Iqualuit.

Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s minister responsible for the Arctic Council, will present the ceremonial gavel to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The United States will chair the group from 2015–2017.

The circumpolar group – whose aim is to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction in the Arctic – is comprised of ministers of the eight member states and high-level representatives of Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations.

At the meeting, the ministers will review actions taken during the past two years and set out, in a formal declaration, the Council’s priorities for the two years to come.

Between meetings, the Council’s work is administered by Senior Arctic Officials and carried out largely by various working groups and task forces. The Senior Arctic Officials report the successful outcomes of their work as “deliverables” at the ministerial meetings.

The Kiruna Declaration: Goals and degree of success

Canada’s chairmanship was governed by the Kiruna Declaration, agreed to at the previous ministerial meeting held in Kiruna, Sweden, in May 2013. The priorities for Canada’s chairmanship were developed in the lead-up to the Kiruna meeting and were broadly reflected in the declaration.

The theme of the Canadian chairmanship was “Development for the People of the North.” It included three sub-themes:

  • Responsible Arctic resource development
  • Safe Arctic shipping
  • Sustainable circumpolar communities

Efforts to achieve the goals of the Kiruna Declaration have met with varying degrees of success. The latest developments are available in the Information for Press document of the 24–25 April 2015 meeting.

Some progress was made by two task forces:

Deliverables are also expected on recommendations to integrate traditional and local knowledge into the work of the Council and to assess initiatives in mental wellness and suicide prevention.

However, the most noteworthy achievement of the Canadian chairmanship is perhaps the creation of the Arctic Economic Council.

Arctic Economic Council: Circumpolar business forum

At Canada’s suggestion, the creation of a circumpolar business forum was agreed to in the Kiruna Declaration. The Arctic Economic Council (AEC) held its first meeting on 2–3 September 2014.

According to its terms of reference, the AEC is an independent, self-funding body of business representatives, designated by each of the Arctic states and the Indigenous Permanent Participants. The AEC is to “[s]erve as a primary forum for interaction between the Arctic Council and the circumpolar business community.”

The Canadian chair of the Senior Arctic Officials has noted that the AEC’s creation is a “flagship initiative” for the Iqaluit ministerial meeting.

However, some concerns have been raised about the Arctic Council’s potential shift to economic development from its original mandate of cooperation on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection.

The fact remains, though, that the Council reached overall agreement regarding the process to establish such a business forum, and the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, in its 2014 Whitehorse Conference Statement, lent its support to the AEC. The Conference asked the governments in the Arctic region, as well as the Arctic Council, to promote the AEC as one of many partners in the development of a sustainable economy for the region.

Assessment of Canada’s chairmanship

While some have described Canada’s chairmanship as “place holding,” others have acknowledged that the Council operates on a consensus basis and is voluntarily funded. These are two of the reasons for the slow and incremental nature of its work.

Given the emphasis Canada has placed on development of the AEC, much of the Canadian legacy will likely be judged on the AEC’s success.

Recent geopolitical tensions between Russia and its western partners related to the conflict in Ukraine have presented a mounting challenge to cooperation in the Arctic. However, under Canada’s chairmanship, this situation has had little impact on the Arctic Council’s functioning.

U.S. chairmanship: Three thematic areas

At the October 2014 Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting, the United States presented the priorities it intends to pursue while chairing the Council.

The overall statement for the U.S. chairmanship is “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities.” The United States calls for “unity among the Arctic States and peoples” and asserts that “all of us, not just the Arctic States and peoples, share in responsibly managing the region.” There are three thematic sub-areas:

  • Safety, security and stewardship of the Arctic Ocean
  • Improving economic and living conditions
  • Addressing the impacts of climate change

Despite emphasis on improving economic conditions, there is little mention of the AEC, except as one of a number of organizations with which the Arctic Council may collaborate.

As was the case with the Canadian chairmanship, the degree to which the American priorities are followed will depend on how they are finally incorporated by ministerial agreement into the declaration at the biennial meeting.

Contrasting the priorities of the United States with those of Canada, some observers have indicated that the United States may put greater emphasis on matters of environmental protection.

Other significant issues are support for the capacity of Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations to participate in the Council’s activities and the role of the growing number of observers at the Council.

Related Resources

Axworthy, Thomas S., Timo Koivurova and Waliul Hasanat. The Arctic Council: Its place in the future of Arctic governance. Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program, 29 May 2012.

Bell, Jim. “U.S.-led Arctic Council to stress Arctic Ocean, climate change.” NunatsiaqOnline, 3 November 2014.

Exner-Pirot, Heather. “The Canadian Arctic Council Ministerial – What to expect.” Eye on the Arctic, 15 April 2015.

Fenge, Terry. “The Arctic Council: Past, Present, and Future Prospects with Canada in the Chair from 2013 to 2015.” The Northern Review, No. 37, Fall 2013.

Weber, Bob. “Canada deserves ‘credit’ for holding Arctic Council together.” Toronto Star, 12 September 2014.

WWF Canada. International Stewardship.