Polar Diplomacy

A recent history of international jockeying over the Far North

Here is a book that boldly goes where almost everyone seems to be going these days, to the Canadian Arctic. In years past, northerners used to complain about the neglect of Canada’s Far North, the lack of political attention to the region and the stunning hypocrisy of a people blessed with vast northern expanses and a rich cultural fascination with the North that nonetheless huddles as close to the Canada–United States border as they could possibly get. Not any more, for Canadians and others around the world are clearly interested in the Arctic now.

In fact, we are perilously close to the “enough books already” situation on aspects of the Arctic, particularly with regards to political development. A few decades back, the standard joke about the North was that a northern aboriginal family consisted of a man, a woman, two children and an anthropologist. Now it seems that the political scientists, who crisscross the North studying aboriginal self-government, co-management, multi-level governance, modern treaties, federal-territorial relations and many other political themes, outnumber the anthropologists. Another group of writers (myself included)—the political equivalent of the armchair adventurers who wrote an endless stream of books about Arctic explorers over the past two centuries—pen volumes about Arctic sovereignty and Canada’s largely uncontested claims to the Far North.

The interest in the Arctic is reflected, in substantial measure, in the high profile given to the region by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He visited the Northwest Territories again in January 2014, this time to announce the start of construction on the last stage of the Dempster Highway, joining Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk and giving Canadians the chance to drive, finally, from sea to sea to sea. The prime minister’s consistent interest in the Far North—something taken very seriously by the civil service in Ottawa—has been matched by global forces: the pointed debate about international boundaries in the Arctic being resolved under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the collapse and re-strengthening of Russia, the (likely exaggerated) potential for massive Arctic resource development, the emergence over the past 30 years of spirited circumpolar indigenous political movements and the advance of responsible government in Canada’s territorial North, capped by the creation of Nunavut.

One of the most intriguing elements in the political empowerment and engagement of the Far North has been the international activity of indigenous peoples. Through organizations such as the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and the Arctic Athabaskan Council, indigenous peoples built up strong circumpolar networks. They were, in fact, often ahead of territorial and national governments in working across international boundaries on issues of common interest. And the Arctic Council, the focal point for John English’s latest book, Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council, is one of the most important outgrowths of this effort.

The Arctic Council, formally established through the Ottawa Declaration of 1996, built on earlier work among the eight Arctic countries (Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark/Greenland and Iceland). Canada currently holds the chair, which rotates every two years among the members. Other non-Arctic countries, controversially including China, Japan, Korea and India, have permanent observer (non-voting) status. Started initially as a way of coordinating intergovernmental activity on environmental and indigenous issues, the Arctic Council gained greater importance in the wake of global climate change, the possibility of the opening of Arctic shipping lanes to commercial traffic and the expansion of Arctic resource development.

While the Arctic Council has been much discussed and analyzed by scholars, there has not yet been a broad organizational history. English, Canada’s pre-eminent political historian, has taken up the task. His marvellous two-volume biography of Pierre Trudeau managed to assuage Trudeau fans and critics alike with its balance, insight, erudition and attention to both personal detail and national context. He is one of Canada’s foremost chroniclers of post-war political life in Canada, and has had a long-standing interest in international affairs, both during his time as a member of Parliament and during his tenure as the founding director of the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is, with his impressive contacts across the Canadian political spectrum and a career of international engagement, extremely well placed to write the history of the Arctic Council.

However, the Arctic Council is perhaps too new to be well served by an extended historical analysis. As the 2013 debates about council membership and the acceptance of additional permanent observers shows, the structure and even the purpose of the organization remain uncertain. Established with the full engagement of indigenous peoples, the expanding profile threatens to change the Arctic Council’s focus from being a North-centred, regional problem-solving institution with unique and prominent indigenous participation to a global institution, immersed in the geopolitics of resource development, sovereignty struggles and climate change, with a potentially diminished role for the actual inhabitants of the Far North. It will be several decades before the full role and significance of the Arctic Council will be known.

English is wise enough to understand the shortcomings of his subject. He focuses his narrative on the evolution of the Arctic Council and avoids bold conclusions about its long-term value. He is careful to provide useful contextual material at every appropriate turn in the narrative, something that Canadians unfamiliar with Arctic politics in Northern Europe and the Soviet Union/Russia will find particularly helpful. He devotes almost one third of the book to international relations in the Arctic before the 1990s, covering the well-trodden ground of Arctic sovereignty debates and offering a lengthy discussion of the impact of the Cold War on Russian-American relations and on Canada’s uneven and fragmented response to the governance of the North. While his work here is fine, he adds little to the seminal study by Shelagh Grant in Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America.

English argues, not completely convincingly, that the Arctic Council is becoming increasingly important and is of “growing prominence.” It is true that the international media is paying more attention to the council than in its early years. This is due more to the global environmental and resource debates and the increasing demands from Asia for a place at the table than to any sudden or sustained interest in indigenous peoples and northern communities. Put simply, the organization could become just another international debating circle used by national governments to posture, cajole and delay. To date, even by English’s friendly account, the jury is still out on the Arctic Council.

Ice and Water tells the story of international negotiations and diplomacy from a decidedly Canadian angle. The concept of the Arctic Council started with Canada, and our federal government and Canadian indigenous leaders played vital roles in moving the concept through and around numerous barriers. It is no surprise that English is much better at appreciating the nuances and personalities on the Canadian side than he is with the other countries. Making sense of the domestic and international politics within the eight Arctic countries would be a formidable task in any circumstance, due to linguistic, cultural and political differences. Doing this on a topic that is recent and with an organization that is still evolving is even more so. That English is not able to provide a comprehensive and detailed examination of the inner workings of the Council and its proponents is hardly surprising.

Many issues remain in transition. The debate about membership, including the regular members and the clambering by outside countries to enter the Arctic inner circle, will continue well into the future. The tensions between the Arctic Ocean states (Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Denmark) and the others (Iceland, Norway and Sweden) are substantial; their needs and interests are often quite different. The gap in circumstances between northern Scandinavia and Canadian and Russian arctics, for example, are very real at many social, economic and cultural levels. Indigenous organizations remain nervous about their long-term role in the council and continue to look for evidence that their contributions to the establishment of the organization will result in the sustained ability to influence Arctic public policy. The very powers of the Arctic Council also remain a matter of contention, as English documents. The organization’s priorities continue to shift; those set by the Government of Canada (resource development, safe Arctic navigation and sustainable communities) for its term as chair from 2013 to 2015 will not necessarily be maintained in the future.

In highlighting the prominent role that Canada played in bringing the organization into existence, English gives appropriate recognition to both Liberal and Conservative lineage. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney raised the idea of a council of Arctic countries in 1989, partially in response to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to lessen Soviet-American tensions. Much of the heavy lifting that led to the establishment of the Arctic Council fell to subsequent Liberal administrations. Ice and Water does a fine job of disentangling the behind-the-scenes wrangling, policy making and international diplomacy that made the new institution possible. English provides only very general descriptions of the key actors and most of the processes and events he describes are familiar to people who follow Arctic politics and diplomacy. The result, however, is a reliable and systematic narrative, substantially from the Canadian perspective, of the emergence of the Arctic Council.

English is much better than most analysts in recognizing the prominent role played by civil servants, such as the formidable Jack Stagg of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, in turning an attractive concept in northern ­collaboration into a practical achievement in international political architecture. He likewise gives fair ­recognition to the role of aboriginal leaders such as Inuit and Canadian spokesperson Mary Simon, and indigenous organizations, in building northern and circumpolar support for the concept. His analysis is more process-oriented than revealing of the intense personal struggles that ran through the negotiations, reflecting his reliance on interviews and public documents. The debates within and between aboriginal organizations and between indigenous and non-indigenous northerners, for example, are not explored in much depth, to the detriment of the book as a whole.

This is not entirely the author’s fault. Because of the ubiquitous use of email and other electronic systems, today’s historians are being denied access to much of the juicy and personal material that once fuelled historical analysis of political processes. Unless a great deal of additional work is done to conduct interviews with key participants in the creation of the Arctic Council and to collect their private papers, it is likely that the political studies of the future will lack the rich texture and insight, say, of English’s work on Trudeau. It is rather worrying to contemplate generations of histories taken from dry committee minutes, and “written for the file” government correspondence. Ian Wilson, the long-serving national librarian and archivist, refers to the modern era as the “digital dark age,” and has warned that a knowledge and insight deficit looms large. In the end, this book does not go very far behind the headlines and the meeting rooms.

Finally, the arrival of this book leads me to a substantial and worrying observation. Ice and Water is, as noted, the latest in a long line of books (to which I have also contributed) about the Arctic. The attention is more than matched by newspaper stories, columns and magazine articles. Peter Mansbridge, it seems, likes the Arctic as much as the prime minister does. The CBC routinely takes its cameras on swings through the area. While the region is important, one is compelled to ask why the Far North warrants such an immense amount of attention, both in Canada and internationally.

The Arctic, and Nunavut specifically, have some very significant challenges and have made impressive progress over the past few years. The achievements among the indigenous communities, governments, development corporations and international organizations are considerable. The circumpolar activities are fascinating, made more by the potent combination of climate change and resource development. But just south of the Arctic lies a region of the country—the North below the North—that gets much less attention. The provincial North does not have the profile or the unique political and constitutional status of the three territories, but it is one of the most important regions in Canada, holding the key to the country’s economic future.

This vast region, stretching from Labrador through to northern British Columbia, has a population some ten times larger than the territorial north combined. Many of the poorest communities in Canada are indigenous villages in the provincial norths, particularly in the northern areas of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The provincial norths are also home to most of the largest resource projects in Canadian history—the Voisey Bay mine and hydro projects of Labrador, the mass hydro dams in northern Quebec, Ontario’s Ring of Fire mineral deposits, Manitoba’s major hydroelectric developments, uranium in Saskatchewan, the oil sands in Alberta and a mix of mining, forestry and energy projects in northern British Columbia. These are regions in rapid transition, generating boom times in Fort McMurray and other resource centres, underpinning the economies of Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal, and revealing the socioeconomic crises of communities like Kashechewan and Attawapiskat.

The provincial norths fire the imagination of the resource sector and garners the attention of federal and provincial politicians eager to promote economic development. However, these regions have not captured the attention of Canadians generally, who are far more entranced with developments in the Arctic than they are with the social, economic and political realities of what Richard Rohmer once described as the mid-Canada corridor. Interesting, most of what is described as being Arctic in Scandinavia is much closer to the geography, economy, climate and sociocultural circumstances of the provincial norths than to the territorial north.

Do not get me wrong. The Arctic and the Arctic Council are important. Books such as Ice and Water that broaden our understanding of the region and its role in international politics are very useful. But it is more than passing strange that the vast majority of the attention devoted to the North in Canada skips quickly over the provincial north—stopping only to check in on the occasional controversy or conflict. Given the fundamental importance of this region to the country’s future—and especially given the challenges facing indigenous people and communities in the region—it is vital that Canadians shift their focus just a little bit south. This history of the Arctic Council, nicely described by John English, tells us how and why the Arctic has garnered international attention and even global prominence. It does not, however, tell us why the region of the North facing the greatest development pressures and the greatest turmoil invokes such limited interest among Canadians.