The Arctic Council: The Involvement of Indigenous Peoples

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In 2022, the Arctic Council was once again nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The nomination may reflect international recognition of the Arctic Council’s goals of working cooperatively and within a framework of consensus-based decision making.

The member states of the Arctic Council, which was founded in 1996 with the signing of the Declaration on the establishment of the Arctic Council (Ottawa Declaration), are Canada and the seven other Arctic states: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The Arctic Council also includes six Indigenous organizations as permanent participants.

The Arctic Council is a forum for Canada and the other Arctic states to advance and help shape international public policy relating to the Arctic. The Ottawa Declaration precludes discussions of military security by the Arctic Council, an omission that is thought to have facilitated collaborative work during times of political uncertainty.

The Arctic Council is also a forum in which Canada can both pursue the goals set out in its Arctic and Northern Policy Framework and collaborate with Indigenous peoples in the Arctic.

Canada’s Role

Canada played a vital role in the founding of the Arctic Council, with Mary Simon – Governor General of Canada since 2021 – helping to negotiate its creation as Canadian ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs. The country served as the Arctic Council’s first chair from 1996 to 1998 and held the position again from 2013 to 2015.

During both of its terms as chair, Canada focused on developing closer relationships with Indigenous peoples, facilitating cooperation between Indigenous peoples and the Arctic states and integrating Indigenous knowledge into the Arctic Council’s work.

Canada’s first term as chair concentrated on addressing issues affecting youth, among other priorities, while the second prioritized the mental health and wellness of Arctic communities and their inhabitants.

Canada is expected to hold the chair of the Arctic Council again from 2029 to 2031.

Permanent Participants

Indigenous peoples comprise approximately 12.5% of all Arctic inhabitants and more than 50% of Canada’s Arctic inhabitants.

When the Arctic Council was established, organizations representing Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic were given permanent participant status. At present, the six organizations listed in Table 1 have that status. The Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International and the Inuit Circumpolar Council all have members who live in Canada.

Table 1 – Organizations with Permanent Participant Status at the Arctic Council, as of May 2022

Organization Year the Organization Joined the Arctic Council Groups and Peoples Represented by the Organization
Aleut International Association 1998 Indigenous peoples of Aleut descent who live in Russia and the United States
Arctic Athabaskan Council 2000 Indigenous peoples of Athabaskan descent who live in Canada and the United States
Gwich’in Council International 2000 Gwich’in peoples who live in Canada and the United States
Inuit Circumpolar Council 1996 Inuit who live in Canada, Greenland, Russia and the United States
Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North 1996 Peoples of 40 Indigenous groups who live in Russia
Saami Council 1996 Saami peoples who live in Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden

Note: The Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council first gained permanent participant status as part of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which predated the Arctic Council. When the Arctic Council was created in 1996, the original eight Arctic states of the AEPS became the Arctic Council’s member states, and the three AEPS Indigenous peoples’ organizations became permanent participants of the Arctic Council.
Sources:  Table prepared by the Library of Parliament based on data obtained from Arctic Council,
The History of the Arctic Council; and Arctic Council, Permanent Participants.

The permanent participants help to facilitate the active participation of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic Council’s work. The inclusion of permanent participants, which have full consultation rights in the Arctic Council’s negotiations and decision making, has been described by the Arctic Institute as one of the Arctic Council’s most distinctive features.

The Arctic Council’s member states and permanent participants are each supported by a secretariat: the Arctic Council Secretariat and the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat, respectively.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat helps the permanent participants prepare and submit proposals to the Arctic Council and generally enhances their capacity to participate in the Arctic Council’s activities. It also works to facilitate consultation and information sharing between and among the permanent participants.

However, when compared to the Arctic Council’s member states, its permanent participants have fewer financial resources with which to participate in the Arctic Council’s activities.

This funding difference was mentioned in the 2019 report by the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic entitled Northern Lights: A Wake-Up Call for the Future of Canada. Similarly, the international chapter of Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework asserts that “[p]ermanent [p]articipants face considerable capacity challenges keeping up with the growing workload of the Arctic Council.”

In 2016, the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat submitted a progress report suggesting that funding had been a challenge for permanent participants since the Arctic Council’s creation. As a result, the Álgu Fund was established. However, according to the Arctic Institute, the fund has not yet reached its financial goal of US$30 million.

In addition to member states and permanent participants, the Arctic Council has observers. Observers include non-Arctic states, as shown in Figure 1. Observers can also be intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations or interparliamentary organizations, such as the Standing Committee of the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, of which Canada is a member. Observers can attend the Arctic Council’s meetings and contribute to its work, but they have no role in decision making.

Figure 1 – Arctic Council Member States and Observer States, as of May 2022

Map image shows two hemispheres of the globe and highlights the Arctic Council’s member states and observer states. The member states are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The observers states are China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Spain, South Korea, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Note: Only non-Arctic states that are observer states are shown on this map. Non-governmental, intergovernmental and interparliamentary organizations are not included.
Sources: Map prepared by the Library of Parliament, 2022, using data from Arctic Council,
About the Arctic Council; Natural Earth, 1:50m Cultural Vectors, version 4.1.0; and Natural Earth, 1:50m Physical Vectors, version 4.1.0. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS Pro, version 2.9.2.

The Arctic Council’s member states and permanent participants, as well as its observers, actively participate in the Arctic Council’s six working groups. These working groups, which cover a broad range of topics, implement the Arctic Council’s projects.

Contributions of the Permanent Participants

The permanent participants have used – and continue to use – their status at the Arctic Council to advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples, the integration of Indigenous knowledge into all decision making and the sustainable development of the Arctic region, among other issues.

Each permanent participant brings topics that are of interest to its members to the attention of the Arctic Council. As well, each strives to ensure that the issues directly affecting the peoples of the Arctic are discussed and addressed.

In the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework’s international chapter, Canada acknowledges that the permanent participants make valuable contributions to the Arctic Council’s work. The chapter also explains that both hearing and including the permanent participants’ concerns and perspectives leads to better decision making.

Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework also notes that through the Arctic Council, the permanent participants have had an impact on international governance. As an example, the framework cites the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s work on highlighting the effects of global contaminants on Inuit, which contributed to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

A Pause and a Limited Resumption

On 3 March 2022, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States issued a joint statement announcing that following Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine and until further notice, the Arctic Council would be pausing all of its official meetings. The joint statement also noted that the temporary pause will permit the signatories to consider “the necessary modalities that can allow us to continue the Council’s important work in view of the current circumstances.”

On 8 June 2022, these seven countries issued a subsequent joint statement that announced a limited resumption of the Arctic Council’s work specific to projects that have no Russian involvement. The joint statement also noted that these countries would “continue to examine additional modalities to allow us to further continue the council’s important work.”


Additional Resources

Arctic Council. The Arctic Council at 25. Fact sheet, 2021.

Arctic Council Secretariat. The Arctic Council: A Quick Guide. 3rd ed., 2021.

Revzin, David (González, Jennifer). The Arctic Council at 25: Creating Connections in a Polarized World. Library of Congress, 17 September 2021.


By Olivia Compton and Daniele Lafrance, Library of Parliament


Categories: Indigenous affairs

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