Remarks on Arctic Economic Council in Toronto Star

Last Friday, I was cited in a Toronto Star article looking back on Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship, which ends with the April 2015 Ministerial meeting in Iqaluit:

Canada also achieved its main goal of creating the Arctic Economic Council, a group of businesses operating in the North that is intended to share best practices and encourage economic development

“This was something that everybody on the Arctic Council wanted,” said Anthony Speca, a U.K.-based consultant and former high-level Nunavut bureaucrat — although he points out the council is currently dominated by large companies such as Russian energy giant Rosneft.

“The people there aren’t necessarily northerners.”

People in the North aren’t always sympathetic to industry, said Speca, who gave as an example heavy Inuit opposition to seismic testing in the Davis Strait.

I did say something of this sort, but put this way it overstates my views somewhat.  In my conversation with the author, I was trying to articulate that the new Arctic Economic Council (AEC) poses a niggling problem for the Arctic Council’s Permanent Participants, which represent the Arctic’s indigenous peoples.

The AEC was created to advise the Arctic Council on business and economic issues.  It’s not a decision-making body, and its members — chiefly drawn from the Arctic business community — have no vote on the Arctic Council itself.  The Permanent Participants, concerned to defend their peoples’ economic rights, may find it better to share an official channel with these companies than to leave them to work government lobbies on their own.

However, like the AEC, the Permanent Participants also have no vote on the Arctic Council.  Even with their rights of full consultation on the Arctic Council’s decisions, the more voices to which the voting Member States listen — or feel obliged to listen — the harder the Permanent Participants may find it to be heard.

This is why the Permanent Participants have long worried about expanding the number of official observers on the Arctic Council — and about exactly which governments and NGOs should be allowed observer status.  It’s also why they have long worried about receiving sufficient funding to allow them to participate in the Arctic Council’s work — a problem that large businesses are unlikely to have.

Now, the AEC is meant to include strong representation from indigenous businesses.  Each of the Permanent Participants nominated delegates to the AEC’s founding meeting last month.  But according to its terms of reference, the AEC can widen its membership to include any number of businesses operating in the Arctic.  It remains to be seen whether the Permanent Participants will wield real influence over the AEC, or whether the AEC will become a competing voice dominated by large corporate interests.

The AEC was no doubt a highlight of Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship, with its theme of ‘development for the people of the North’.  According to Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Minister for the Arctic Council, the AEC will help to make Arctic peoples ‘the decision-makers’ on Arctic development.  But much still depends on how the AEC chooses to structure and govern itself — and on how well the Arctic Council holds it accountable.

Read the full article by Bob Weber of the Canadian Press on the website of the Toronto Star.

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