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Joël Plouffe: North America’s neglected north

by Joël Plouffe

National Post
May 9, 2013

As Canada kicks off a second round of Arctic Council chairmanships this month, we’re reminded of the achievements brought by international co-operation in the circumpolar world since the end of the Cold War.

From reduced military tensions to increased stability, transnational dialogue has brought states, regional actors and northerners together to work toward common goals, with shared beliefs in greater prosperity and well-being.

While the Arctic Council is the most prominent forum for state-to-state dialogue in the region, it’s not the only organization that promotes and strengthens Arctic co-operation.

Northern Europe has produced several institutions designed to increase dialogue around issues of culture, politics and finance. Among these are the Nordic Council, created in 1952, and the Nordic Council of Ministers, launched in 1971. Since the end of the Cold War, the rise of Barents co-operation heralded unprecedented collaboration in the European Arctic.

There have been attempts to encourage ties between northern Canada and Alaska, but a movement for greater co-operation across our Arctic, with clear objectives of prosperity and well-being, has never really taken off. This leaves northerners on this continent isolated from each other, with limited access to resources and expertise when it comes to dealing with Arctic and northern issues.

With common security concerns brought on by climate change, as well as increased human and economic activities in the Arctic, it’s important for North Americans to take a co-ordinated approach to knowledge-sharing and region-building in the North.

A North American Arctic Forum would not only bring northerners together to discuss challenges of building stronger communities, based on new economic initiatives, it would also create a network that promotes education as the basis for a sustainable future.Dialogue and knowledge-sharing have the potential to empower local decision-makers to take the lead in planning, as well as to take steps to create and strengthen local economies and foster economic co-operation throughout the region.

Important steps taken over the past few years suggest that North Americans are willing to look at northern issues from a new angle.

This continent needs its own pan-Arctic organization, focusing on concerns specific to the North American Arctic region and its people.

Quebec has been particularly active in the North. Earlier this year, the province signed a historical declaration of intention with the Nordic Council of Ministers to open new avenues of collaboration between Northern Europe and Quebec on matters of “responsible northern development.” Quebec has also joined the Northern Forum, an international organization with observer status at the Arctic Council, that has the potential to play a greater co-ordination role in the region. And in northern Quebec, the Nunavimmiut have put forward a plan to create a comprehensive vision, based on the traditional Inuit way of life, for the development of Nunavik. It could serve as a model for the entire northern neighbourhood.

Alaska has recently started consultations on Arctic policymaking initiatives, which are also in line with region-building. The new Alaska Arctic Policy Commission will travel around the state this year to meet with Alaskans, hearing their concerns on topics such as indigenous peoples, oil-and-gas development, mining, fisheries and infrastructure. It plans to co-ordinate and collaborate with its nearest northern neighbours, Canada and Russia.

The Arctic Caucus, formed by Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in 2009 as part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, is addressing ideas such as American and Canadian Arctic policy challenges. The caucus serves as a model for a North American Arctic forum, including Greenland, with the most advanced framework for collaboration in the region.

Intergovernmental bodies like the Arctic Council and regional governance structures remain at the core of circumpolar co-operation. Meanwhile, this continent needs its own pan-Arctic organization, focusing on concerns specific to the North American Arctic region and its people. It’s time for a North American Arctic Forum.

Joël Plouffe is a researcher at the Center for Interuniversity Research on the International Relations of Canada and Québec at the École nationale d’administration publique in Montreal, managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook and a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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