With prospectors set to descend upon the Arctic faster than its ice is melting, Canada took the helm of the Arctic Council on May 15 as Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq became the first indigenous person to chair the eight-member intergovernmental forum.
Aglukkaq, Inuk, promised to work with businesses in developing the Arctic’s changing and newly accessible landscape. With polar ice melting and permafrost thawing, new shipping routes are opening up, and tracts of minerals are being revealed.
“The time has come to embrace the Arctic and realize the tremendous potential and opportunities it has to offer for all of us,” said Aglukkaq, who is the Member of Parliament for Nunavut. “With the help of our Arctic Council partners, we will focus on creating economic development and sustainable northern communities.”
The eight member nations—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.—and six indigenous groups known as Permanent Participants met on May 15 in Kiruna, Sweden, to discuss a host of issues including sustainable development, ocean acidification and the disappearing ice cover. The council also granted official observer status to China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. But the European Union was denied that status for the time being because of its recent ban on the importation of seal products, which the Inuit say has affected their livelihood and traditions. The council deferred its final decision pending more internal discussion, according to the Nunatsiaq News. (Related: Inuit and Canadian Officials Lash Out at European Union's Seal Products Ban)
Aboriginals emphasized that any development would have to include consultation with Indigenous Peoples and entail maintaining their culture and traditions. “The management of resources must include protection of the basis for indigenous industries, culture and language,” said Egil Olli, president of the Sámi Parliament in Norway, in the aboriginal participants' official statement. “In that connection, there may be grounds for the Arctic Council to consider devoting more attention to the Indigenous Peoples’ cultural heritage, sacred sites and cultural landscapes.”
The other indigenous participants are the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Gwich’in Council International, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Aleut International Association.
Indigenous persons, especially the Inuit, were heartened to have an Inuk chairing the international body.
“I’m sure that Inuit across Canada are just as proud as I am of the fact that one of our own has been appointed to such a prestigious and influential position,” said Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in a statement. “Aglukkaq’s knowledge of the land and Inuit values will serve Canada and the Arctic well during her term.”
That support notwithstanding, 42 aboriginals on May 13 demanded a moratorium on all offshore Arctic drilling. The group included aboriginal groups from Russia, the U.S., Canada and Scandinavia, two of them among the permanent participants of the Arctic Council.
“It is time that we join forces and demand that the oil companies and the Arctic states change their path and start to listen to the voices of the Indigenous Peoples residing in these lands,” the signatories said in a statement.
Aside from that, the council ministers and permanent members had plenty in common, with emergency preparedness a top concern. To address it, the ministers signed the Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response agreement, just the second time the nations have signed a legally binding accord, CBC News said. Their goal was to address the fact that the volatility of the region’s weather, coupled with the area’s remoteness, would amplify damage from any spills.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) attended the meeting, for which President Barack Obama released a national strategy outlining the nation’s plans on balancing development with environmental issues, the Miami Herald reported.