Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic May 18, 2017 - 8:30 am

Six things you need to know about the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council met last week in Fairbanks, Alaska. What was all the fuss about?

JIM BELL
Indigenous representatives and others at a panel discussion held last week during the Arctic Council ministerial gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARCTIC COUNCIL)
Indigenous representatives and others at a panel discussion held last week during the Arctic Council ministerial gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARCTIC COUNCIL)
Okalik Eegeesiak of Iqaluit, the international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, at last week's Arctic Council ministerial gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARCTIC COUNCIL)
Okalik Eegeesiak of Iqaluit, the international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, at last week's Arctic Council ministerial gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARCTIC COUNCIL)

You likely heard about that big Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska this past May 11.

It brought together foreign ministers from the eight Arctic Council states, Indigenous representatives from around the circumpolar world, and numerous observers and scientists.

So what was all the fuss about? Here’s a quick primer.

1. Did the Arctic Council pay attention to Indigenous peoples?

Sort of. At least, more so than in the past.

The six international Indigenous organizations, called “permanent participants,” which represent the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, have complained for many years that they don’t get enough money to do the work they would like to do within the council.

So a highlight of this year’s gathering in Fairbanks was the announcement of the Álgu Fund. It’s a charitable foundation, with an independent board of directors, set up to raise money for the Arctic Council’s Indigenous participants.

Five of the council’s six permanent participants—the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Saami Council and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Far East, and Siberia—are backing the fund.

But the Inuit Circumpolar Council is staying out of it.

Another highlight is a 162-page report on Indigenous food, filled with multiple recipes for such delicacies as Aleut-style braided seal intestine, Inupiat bearded seal meat preserved in seal oil, and a Saami soup made with the eyeballs of reindeer.

2. What did they get done?

For starters, the eight circumpolar foreign ministers signed a deal on scientific co-operation.

It’s the third legally binding agreement in the council’s history.

In this one, the eight Arctic Council states agree to help scientists from the other countries gain access to their territories and access to their data, and also encourages the use of traditional and local knowledge.

The Arctic Council’s other two binding agreements are a 2011 treaty on search and rescue and a 2013 agreement on marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

And under the chairmanship of the United States, the Arctic Council continued its co-ordination of circumpolar environmental research, with a big emphasis on climate change, contaminants and human health.

That included the adoption of big new reports on the impact of climate change on communities and wildlife, and they took note of the accumulation of junk in the Arctic’s seas, including microplastics.

3. What about Nunavut’s favourite whipping boy, the European Union?

At the Fairbanks gathering, the Arctic Council did not grant observer status to the EU.

The council did grant observer status to Switzerland and to a few organizations, such as the World Meteorological Organization and the National Geographic Society.

But for Canadian Inuit, European Parliament’s 2009 seal product import ban is a dead issue anyway, having been resolved in 2015.

The EU is now implementing its exception for Indigenous seal products and at the 2015 Arctic Council ministerial in Iqaluit, Canada dropped its objection to the EU’s observership bid.

Right now, the biggest objector to the EU’s observership ambitions is likely Russia, over the EU’s position on the conflict in Ukraine. It was the desire of many Ukrainians to join the EU that led to the 2014 Maidan revolution and Russia’s subsequent support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

4. What’s in it for regular people?

The Arctic Council is now well aware of the devastation that deaths by suicide inflict on Arctic communities, from Nunavut and Alaska to the Saami territories of northern Scandinavia.

That much was clear in March 2015, when the council held a big circumpolar gathering in Iqaluit under the chairmanship of Canada’s Leona Aglukkaq to look at best practices for suicide prevention.

Under the U.S. chairmanship between May 2015 and May 2017, the council took that work and brought Indigenous community leaders and mental health experts together in a project called “Rising Sun,” which included a get-together in Iqaluit this past February.

Under that theme, a special task force delivered a report last week that’s aimed at providing Arctic communities with better suicide-prevention know-how through a web-based toolbox.

And if you’re weary of northern Canada’s expensive, unreliable and sometimes non-existent internet and cellular phone services, the Arctic Council offers a glimmer of hope.

Building on work done by the Arctic Economic Council, a body created during the Canada’s chairmanship, the council produced a big assessment of Arctic telecommunications that they tabled in Fairbanks last week.

To no one’s surprise, the report shows there’s an enormous digital divide between the densely-populated Arctic regions of northern Scandinavia and the deprived rural and remote communities of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and parts of Alaska.

There’s just one problem: it’s national and regional governments that are responsible for things like health care and telecommunications. The Arctic Council can’t do much about them except sponsor the creation of well-researched reports.

5. Did Russia and U.S. behave themselves?

Yes, they did.

Which is a blessing. As never before, the Arctic Council’s two big boys each bring the possibility of multiple convoluted conflicts.

Russia’s neighbours, Norway and Finland, have been alarmed by the Vladimir Putin regime’s bellicose actions in Ukraine and Crimea, and the extent to which their region is vulnerable to Russian-based cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns.

As for the United States, most informed observers expect the erratic administration of Donald Trump will pull their country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change within weeks.

But Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did not use the council to make such an announcement.

And Tillerson even signed the Fairbanks Declaration, which acknowledges the impact of climate change and the need to do something about it.

Tillerson, along with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and the other six national representatives, kept their profound differences to themselves.

And that ensures the Arctic Council will continue to function for at least another two years.

6. What does Finland plan to do?

It looks as if Finland will continue to emphasize work on environmental protection and climate change that the Obama administration emphasized during its chairmanship.

They’ll also push for better telecommunications in the Arctic, including improved satellite and undersea cable connectivity.

And Finland says they’ll also emphasize economic development that brings prosperity to Arctic peoples and will try to build closer ties between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council.

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