Why everyone wants a piece of the Arctic

In temperature and politics, the Arctic has never been hotter. As other nations try to get in on the action, Canada is gearing up for a fight.

Why the world wants the Arctic

Per Breiehagen/Getty Images

Ólafur Grímsson, the jovial, globe-trotting president of Iceland, likes to tell the story of his first state visit to Russia 11 years ago, when he asked to meet with Vladimir Putin to talk about the Arctic. The snow-haired Icelander was told that such esoteric matters would be best discussed with local authorities in Kamchatka and Murmansk, thousands of miles from the Kremlin. These days, says Grímsson with a chuckle, Putin himself gives speeches at Arctic conferences—and sends emissaries to Iceland to personally invite Grímsson to attend.

In temperature and in geopolitics, the Arctic has never been hotter. The ice cap is melting rapidly; new shipping lanes are opening up, as are previously inaccessible reserves of oil, gas and minerals. It is estimated that one-fifth of the world’s petroleum reserves lie in the Arctic. Whether these riches will be developed and transported, under what conditions and by whom, are high-stakes questions that are growing in urgency for governments and industry around the world. Some projections say a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean could occur by mid-century. “For the first time in human history we will witness the creation of a new ocean,” Grímsson told a conference in Washington last month. And the rest of the world wants in. Last summer, a Chinese-owned icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, sailed from Shanghai to Iceland. The purpose of that expedition was ostensibly to research how the melting of the sea ice creates extreme weather patterns in China. But China is also building cargo ships to sail across a polar route this decade using the ice-free summer months, cutting the distance to Europe and America.

“There’s a long queue of other players—starting with China, India, South Korea, Singapore, Germany and France and others who want a piece of the action and want to sit at the table,” Grímsson said. “And they are coming with a basket of investment finance.”


It’s precisely at this fraught moment of growing global interest that Canada is taking over the leadership of the Arctic Council, a once-obscure gathering of diplomats from eight Arctic countries who met in school gymnasiums of remote villages to discuss Arctic research. Founded in Ottawa in 1996, it is now the leading policy-making forum for the Arctic, producing binding international agreements among Arctic countries.

On May 15, in the northern Swedish mining town of Kiruna, Canada will officially take over the chairmanship. Not a mere formality, the role will allow the Canadian government to set an agenda and shape the direction of Arctic co-operation for the next two years, until it passes the reins to the next country in line, the United States.

Hillary Clinton attended the council’s last ministerial meeting, in Greenland in 2011, the first U.S. secretary of state to do so. Her successor, John Kerry, says he will attend. Interest is so high that 12 non-Arctic entities have applied to join the council as permanent “observers.” They include the European Union, China, India, Singapore, Japan, and groups such as Greenpeace and the Association of Oil and Gas Producers.

Some members favour expanding the tent to include the newcomers. But traditionally, Russia and Canada, who control the majority of the Arctic coastline, have been reluctant to let the world into their backyard. Some 120,000 people live in Canada’s Arctic—and their interests and aspirations do not necessarily align with the agendas of the distant nations who want a say in Arctic affairs. The Harper government sums up its Arctic policy as “development for the benefit of the people of the North.” It’s a vision that emphasizes economic development over conservation, and—as highlighted by the choice of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq as chairwoman of the council—one that gives priority to Arctic residents.

Aglukkaq, an Inuk who spent her childhood living a traditional seal-hunting, igloo-dwelling lifestyle in remote communities in Nunavut, is the first indigenous person to ever chair the council. She arrives as aspirations for self-determination among indigenous people around the Arctic regions have been increasing along with economic opportunity. A land-claims agreement led to the creation of Nunavut in 1999; 10 years later, the majority-indigenous population of Greenland won increased self-government from Denmark; the Sami people have been seeking greater recognition of their rights in Nordic countries; and the indigenous populations in Russia are still building a political movement.

The expectations on Aglukkaq’s shoulders are enormous. “It’s absolutely historical and of major significance,” said Dalee Dorough, vice-chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, about Aglukkaq’s role. “There is so much translation that doesn’t have to take place in terms of indigenous perspectives—they are in her mind, in her language, they are everywhere.”

In an interview with Maclean’s, Aglukkaq said the interests of indigenous people are her top priority. “I want the people on the ground to be put first—the people who actually live in the Arctic,” she said. But that goal is colliding with the desire of other countries to expand and internationalize the Arctic Council—a move that Aglukkaq fears could dilute the influence of indigenous participants. Under the current structure of the council, eight sovereign nations make decisions: Canada, the U.S., Russia, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Greenland. In addition, representatives of six cross-border groups of indigenous people sit at the council table as “permanent participants,” engaging in discussions and policy work: the Inuit, the Sami, the Athabaskan, Gwich’in, Aleuts, and an association of indigenous people in Russia.

Moreover, there are already 26 “permanent observers” who are allowed to watch meetings and to contribute to the activities of the council’s working groups. They include six countries from Europe, as well as organizations such as the Red Cross, the International Arctic Science Committee, and the Association of World Reindeer Herders.

“One of my worries is that when we get too many observers, there is a potential to diminish the role of the permanent participants,” said Aglukkaq. “And the other concern I have is that the number of observers is so big that we won’t be able to host any conferences or meetings in the Arctic.”

Julie Gourley, the senior Arctic official at the U.S. Department of State, told a conference at the Brookings Institution in Washington last month that the council has always been a “small and friendly” forum. “We are being very careful about who we let in. The bigger it gets, the dynamic changes,” she said. The Danish ambassador to the Arctic, Klavs Holm, said he’d never seen such close relationships between diplomats. On a trip to the North Pole, he said, “We actually hugged each other.” But Denmark supports expansion because the Arctic impacts other countries—and their activities impact the Arctic. “There are international players whose points of view we need,” Holm said. “And the risk is, if we don’t take them on board, they will go elsewhere and make another forum.”

Norwegian diplomat Christian Syse agreed. “We believe it is important to have them on the inside of the tent, instead of on the outside. That goes for China, South Korea and other nations as well,” he said. The non-Arctic countries could help deal with environmental challenges, rescue opportunities and oil spills, he added. “We do a lot of science and research that they can take part in. The Arctic Council is a big umbrella with lots of different activities.”

One particular area of concern for Canada is admitting the European Union, which has banned the commerce in seal products, a move that Canada opposes—and one that stirs Aglukkaq’s passions. “The EU wants to impose stigma on the Inuit way of life in international forums. They think they know best how we should hunt or what we should eat. I think that is just ignorance, really,” she told Maclean’s. The seal-products ban will be one factor that Canada considers in evaluating the EU’s application, she said, noting that one of the official criteria for membership is respect for the indigenous way of life. Moreover, there is fear that an official EU presence could pressure member countries Sweden and Finland, and EU membership applicant Iceland, to act as a bloc.

Aglukkaq also bristles at any suggestion that the Arctic should be “internationalized” in the mould of Antarctica—which is an uninhabited region governed by an international treaty. “This is not the South Pole. Canada’s Arctic is Canada’s Arctic. There are people in the North who live there all year long. We are not a giant park,” she said. While Antarctica is a land mass surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is frozen ocean surrounded by sovereign, inhabited countries. Various nations are laying claims to extended continental shelf off of their coasts and the seabed and subsoil resources that come with it. (That process is handled by the United Nations, not the Arctic Council.)

But as global interest grows, non-Arctic countries are already joining another forum. Grímsson and others last month announced the creation of a new group called the Arctic Circle that will hold its first “open assembly” in Reykjavik in October. Aglukkaq says she does not fear a rivalry because only the council brings together top government ministers. “If there are groups that want to get together, talk to each other, research, I have no issues with that,” she said.

But some Canadian critics also worry that the Harper government’s approach is too parochial and development-focused. “As chair, we have a larger responsibility than pressing forward our domestic Arctic priorities into the Arctic Council,” says Franklyn Griffiths, professor emeritus of international politics at the University of Toronto, and a long-time Arctic analyst. “It’s not enough to say that Arctic residents should be the ones to set the tone alone because the Arctic is part and parcel of the world’s climate. The Arctic is the world’s air conditioner, or its weather kitchen. Canada should have an international or global view, which we haven’t developed.”

Griffiths proposes that non-Arctic countries be allowed to join the council as observers—but that they pay for the privilege. The money would go into a fund that would pay for the indigenous groups’ travel and staffing costs so they “are able to cope with an ever-larger and more complex agenda” and “not be overrun” by the interests of non-Arctic countries.

But while Aglukkaq is leery of bringing more observers directly into council meetings, she does want to bring in additional voices into the group’s orbit. She wants to create a circumpolar business forum for industry groups and companies that work in the Arctic.

“Organizations that actually are developing the North—the mining industry, cruise ships, fishing industries: how do we bring what they know to the table? How do we bring what they are seeing to the table? And when we set terms and conditions on projects and shipping routes, we don’t do a very good job of asking ‘How did we do?’ or, ‘How are the standards we put forward for your gold mine or shipping routes working?’ I want a broader view of decisions made.”

Aglukkaq insists that development can be reconciled with environmental protection. “As a northerner, we want jobs. We want development. But we want to ensure it is environmentally responsible,” she said. The subsurface rights to many resources belong to the Aboriginal people through negotiated land claims. They receive royalties and can negotiate the terms of development with the companies.

In 2011, the Arctic Council oversaw negotiation of its first binding international agreement on Arctic search and rescue. At this month’s meeting, members are expected to finalize a binding agreement on Arctic oil-spill response. Over the next two years, Canada also wants to work on a spill-prevention agreement. “We will make prevention of oil spills one of our main priorities,” said Patrick Borbey, president of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Canada’s senior official for the Arctic Council. Such an agreement would build on research into standards and prevention strategies in various Arctic jurisdictions, “recognizing that what works in northern Norway may be different from what we need in the Beaufort Sea,” Borbey said.

The disastrous oil spill of BP’s Macondo well off the coast of Louisiana in 2010 led to new regulations and a search for new spill-prevention technologies. “But how do those perform in Arctic conditions? Can they meet those standards? There is more work that needs to be done. We all benefit from sharing, even if at the end of the day decisions will be made through [domestic] regulatory regimes,” said Borbey.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is slowly waking up to its own role in the North. Barack Obama’s administration is overhauling its regulation of offshore oil drilling, and is beginning to look at scenarios to respond to the melting ice, including the eventual construction of deep-water ports. In his recent speaking tour, Icelandic President Grímsson reminded Americans that melting will mean, among other things, an extensive open border. “Anyone with a vessel will be able to land because there is nobody there,” he said

With that open border come concerns about organized crime and illegal trafficking in drugs and people. National security has not traditionally been part of the council’s mandate. But with Russia building new nuclear submarines, and the U.S. building additional missile interceptors in Alaska to protect against threats from North Korea, there are calls for that to change. “Canada can show leadership by recognizing the need for a frank and open discussion on military issues before it is too late,” argued Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. Added Grímsson: “We are now entering a completely new era.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.