By Alex Binkley

When Canada assumes the Chair of the Arctic Council next year, it needs to have an ambitious agenda to expand the body’s international reach as well as its role as a forum for indigenous peoples’ issues. That was the consensus that emerged from a Sept. 27 workshop sponsored by the Rideau Institute on the future of the Arctic as the Polar ice cap melts, opening it to navigation, fishing and resource exploration.

One positive sign is the recent appointment of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq – who also serves as Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency – as Canada’s Chair of the Arctic Council, thus bringing a Northern perspective to the handling of Arctic issues. Ms. Aglukkaq is MP for Nunavut.

While the workshop heard from former diplomats, politicians and academics, the discussions were shaped by a discussion paper prepared by Michel Byers, a UBC professor and Arctic specialist.

Canada was the first Chair when it, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States created the Council in 1996 to promote co-operation in issues involving the region. Among the pressing ones are collaboration on oil spill prevention, search and rescue, policing the region and ensuring safe navigation, Mr. Byers noted.

Oil spill prevention has to be one of top priorities for Canada, he urged. It should encourage the Council to repeat previous calls on the International Maritime Organization to transform its 2009 Guidelines on Ships Operating in Polar Waters into a Polar Code. While the IMO is adopting a new treaty on oil spill preparedness and response, it is unlikely to add any new substantive obligations to the existing requirements for stockpiling of oil spill equipment, development of cleanup plans, and holding training exercises. “Mounting an effective response to a major oil spill in the Arctic is presently not possible due to enormous environmental challenges, a lack of capacity and the severe limitations of current response methods in ice-covered waters,” he said. “Due to the Arctic’s remoteness and extreme weather, there is also a high percentage of time when no response, however ineffective, could even be attempted. What is really needed is an Arctic-wide treaty that focuses on oil spill prevention, and this might involve forcing companies to internalize the full costs of offshore drilling in the region,” he continued. “Oil companies will develop and implement the enhanced safety measures needed in the Arctic, but only if they are forced to bear the full risk and cost of the damage caused by spills.” Canada should take the lead in negotiating such a treaty.

He also urged the Council to welcome China and the European Union as observers, in recognition of the Arctic’s international importance. Establishing a fishing regime for the Arctic Sea similar to the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization could go a long way to protecting fish stocks from overexploitation and showing the value of international cooperation, he added.

Pierre Leblanc, a former Canadian Forces Arctic commander, said Canada has to act with urgency because the region may be essentially ice-free as early as 2020. That would open it to rogue states such as North Korea, fly by night shipping and fishing companies and outfits looking for dumping grounds for nuclear and other waste. “Our ability to conduct surveillance in the region is still lacking,” he pointed out. “While the Canadian Forces are currently the best equipped to protect the region, Canada should consider arming the Coast Guard and giving it the role of protecting the North.” He also wants Arctic Council members to move ahead with collaboration on search and rescue in the Arctic and to develop a Polar Code, much like the Open Skies agreement, that will allow countries to verify the activities of one another.

Former diplomat Christopher Westdal offered a somber assessment of the challenges facing the region.  “It’s not hard to imagine conflict in the North over resources, fish or the right of passage for ships.” While the Canadian government is paying more attention to the region, “we have a lot of catching up to do. We have to build international confidence in the Arctic Council.” While Russia has to be encouraged to be more co-operative in its dealings with its Arctic neighbours, Canada must stop cutting back its diplomatic activities if it wants the rest of the world to take it seriously, he said. “The Arctic Council is about relationships with major countries—the U.S., Russia, China and Europe.” Also, Ottawa will have to put its money where its mouth is on Arctic issues, he added. “Arctic Council leadership won’t come cheaply. We can only hope Canada rises to the occasion.”

In his paper, Mr. Byers credited the Arctic Council with “modest but nevertheless significant successes.” They include Climate Impact and Marine Shipping Assessment as well as the Search and Rescue Agreement. Under it, the countries agree to pool equipment and personnel in the event of disaster. As well, it has brought indigenous peoples into the discussions thus making it “the proverbial town square for an expanding community of experts and stakeholders,” he noted. As the U.S. will take over the Chair in 2015, after Canada, the two countries should develop a common agenda because they will be able to accomplish far more over the four years if they work together, he said.