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In The Media

Does Québec Need the Arctic Council?

by Amy M. Delo (feat. Joel Plouffe)

World Policy Blog
September 6, 2017

At the 2014 Arctic Circle Assembly, in front of more than 2,000 participants from 50 countries, Philippe Couillard, premier of Québec, highlighted the province’s commitment to Arctic matters, stating, “We want, and we will be, part of the dialogue on Arctic and Nordic issues.” Playing a role in the formation of Arctic policy has been an integral part of Québec’s efforts to claim a voice on the international stage. Couillard’s words asserted his position as a key sub-national leader in Arctic issues and illustrated Québec’s determination for a seat at the Arctic negotiating table.

As a historically, culturally, and linguistically distinct region of Canada, Québec is often considered a “nation within a nation.” The Canadian Parliament legally recognized this unique status through the Québec Nation Motion of 2006, which formalized a kind of partial sovereignty for the province. The motion, while mostly symbolic in nature, provides validation for the existence of Québec as a distinct entity with its own goals and agendas, chief among them its Arctic development program. Although Québec held two secession referenda, in 1985 and 1990, it is no longer seeking complete political independence from Canada. Instead, it is leveraging its semi-autonomous status to assert a distinct identity and leadership role in international relations, especially in the Arctic. 

Most actors with vested interests in the Arctic (countries, indigenous groups, and nongovernmental organizations) collaborate through the unique institution of the Arctic Council. But sub-national political units, like Québec, do not have formal status in the Council; they can only participate via their federal governments. Québec, unable to access the Arctic Council independent of Canada, has shaped regional decision-making and distinguished its own role from Ottawa’s Arctic agenda through the creation of Plan Nord and participation in the Arctic Circle Assemblies.

Québec’s government first introduced Plan Nord in 2011. The package of economic, social, and environmental development policies was designed to promote public and private investment, and improve both physical and human resources, in northern Québec (Nord-du-Québec). The creation of Plan Nord was instrumental in distinguishing Québec from Canada on the international stage by allowing Québec to formulate its own multilateral relations with other states, without Canada.

Premier Couillard showed off Plan Nord to an international audience at the 2014 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland. The Arctic Circle is an Icelandic NGO that organizes a yearly meeting for diplomats, scientists, intellectuals, indigenous groups, and other actors with a vested interest in the region. Unlike the Arctic Council, the Arctic Circle does not have a governance role, but it does provide an alternative forum for discussing issues of relevance to the Arctic. The Arctic Circle is even considered by some to be an alternative body for those excluded from the Arctic Council. As an Arctic Circle Partner (a member organization), Québec can have its voice heard in a way that is not possible in the Arctic Council. One of only two government entities outside of Iceland to be an Arctic Circle Partner, Québec plays a leadership role in the institution and provides financial support. Couillard’s presentation at this Assembly explained Plan Nord to other participants, discussing how it could be a model for both federal and sub-national entities with Arctic territory, such as the country of Iceland or the state government of Alaska.

With international interest piqued by Plan Nord, Québec collaborated with the Arctic Circle to host its own conference to further showcase the achievements of the strategy and encourage other governments to adopt similar policy packages. In preparation, Premier Couillard made an official visit to Iceland in 2015 to meet with then-President Òlafur Ragnar Grìmsson. The relationship between the Canadian province and the Icelandic government was solidified, leading to the development of the joint Arctic Circle Forum on Sustainable Development hosted in Québec City in December 2016. Topics of discussion included Plan Nord and ways to increase collaboration between Québec and other governments and organizations.

Beyond this event, Québec has made itself indispensable to the Arctic Circle. Éric Theroux, assistant deputy minister for policy in Québec’s Ministry of International Relations and Francophonie, is an Arctic Circle board member, while Couillard serves as an honorary board member. Holding these leadership positions—which would not be possible in the Arctic Council—amplifies Québec’s ability to influence decision-making within the Arctic Circle. As noted by Jöel Plouffe, a researcher for the Center for the Study of Politics and Security in the Arctic, this kind of participation in the Arctic Circle is a way to “brand Québec as a northern actor that has vested interests in the (changing) circumpolar region.”

But even as Québec positions itself as a key player in Arctic politics, some of its policies have come under scrutiny, particularly from indigenous groups in northern Québec critical of Plan Nord. Approximately 33,000 out of the 120,000 people who live in Nord-du-Québec are indigenous. This includes Cree, Innu, Naskapi, and Inuit peoples. However, these populations were not allowed the input they deserved as the inhabitants of that area. In fact, the Nunavimmiut (Inuit) of northern Québec created their own northern development strategy, called Parnasimautik, in response to Plan Nord, demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the consultation processes and final product of the government’s program.

Ensuring that conversations between Québec and the Nunavimmiut are productive exchanges, and not merely lip service, will remain one of the greatest challenges of the province’s Arctic policy. Government officials will need to engage in meaningful dialogue with indigenous populations and honor the traditional knowledge of these communities, which have existed in the Arctic for millennia. If this effort fails, disagreement within Québec’s borders will undermine the legitimacy of the government’s leadership role in Arctic matters. But if they are successful, Québec’s partnerships with indigenous peoples will promote and validate its Arctic agenda, providing an example of how sub-national entities can collaborate with local partners to promote sustainable development.

While Québec has not been successful at incorporating indigenous knowledge and worldviews to shape its policy and goals, the Arctic Council was founded on the idea of bridging the gap between states and indigenous peoples. Québec has made strides in advancing its Arctic agenda, but it should take note of the Arctic Council’s model for collaboration with indigenous peoples if it wishes to remain a player on the international stage. Perhaps Québec does need the Arctic Council after all.

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