Creating a bigger presence for industry at the world’s premiere international forum on northern issues won’t distract from its work on environmental problems, says the Conservative cabinet minister about to lead the group.
Leona Aglukkaq, who will assume the chairmanship of the group of the eight nations that ring the North Pole, plans to start an arctic business forum as a way for northern business to share ideas and solutions.
“What I’m proposing is a trade show forum, a business forum of Arctic to Arctic, an opportunity for private industry to exchange information on best practices on permafrost, on shipping, all of that,” said Aglukkaq, who says these are vital pieces missing from the research currently being conducted.
Emphasizing local development would be a change for the council. In the 16 years since its creation in Ottawa, it has focused on international issues such as its 2011 search and rescue treaty and a pact on oil spill prevention.
It has also conducted circumpolar environmental research. Last week, it released the first major study on the acidification of the Arctic Ocean from greenhouse gases.
But Aglukkaq—an Inuk from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut—said it’s time the council addressed the immediate concerns of northerners.
“We can do science and research but if we’re going to make fully informed decisions we have to ask industry how are we doing? I feel we have to close that gap.”
A bigger role for the private sector could be useful, said Sara French of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security program at the University of Toronto. She points out that it could be a private cruise ship that responds to a marine disaster.
“You have to look at the assets private sectors bring to bear because often, they’re the ones with ‘boots on the ground,'” she said. “It’s important to understand the role of the private sector in the North.”
More important, she said, would be Canadian efforts to live up to the promises they’ve already made, such as buying search-and-rescue airplanes to respond to crises. The council also needs a better funding mechanism to handle everything on its plate, French said.
But the council is the wrong body to address economic development, said Michael Byers, an Arctic policy expert and onetime federal New Democrat candidate who teaches international law at the University of British Columbia.
The council has bigger fish to fry that can only be addressed internationally, said Byers—oil spill cleanup, reducing black carbon deposition and regulating future fisheries.
“The Canadian government hasn’t realized this is a foreign policy institution.”
He said senior diplomats from other countries are already worried that Canada’s term will be a two-year holding pattern.
“The message I get from foreign diplomats is a real concern that two years might be wasted at a rather critical juncture.”
Duane Smith of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a non-voting participant in the council, said northerners are concerned about jobs but don’t want to lose what they’ve got.
The Arctic is growing increasingly important in the diplomatic world. In April, Iceland founded the Arctic Circle, a forum open to any country interested in the Arctic. China was one of the first to sign on.
Smith said he’s met with representatives from Singapore, Italy and Japan as well as China—all trying to win support for their bids for observer status on the council.