By Matthew Willis Canada has now replaced Sweden as chair of the Arctic Council. While only time will tell what sort of leadership it will provide, or how it will shape the Council’s activities, the programme for chairmanship it outlined in January has received mixed reviews. Several Arctic governments have openly backed it , but others have been more reticent. Media coverage, though generally balanced, has sometimes implied Canada is out of step with the times. Most strikingly, Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, chose the 15th of April – exactly one month before this week’s summit in Kiruna, Sweden – to announce the establishment of a new forum, the Arctic Circle, whose vision appears diametrically opposed to the Canadian one.
This article summarises the Canadian chairmanship programme and reflects on the vision behind it. Without claiming to offer an exhaustive analysis, it argues that Canada’s programme represents something quite novel: not a traditional Canadian vision of the Arctic, but rather an Arctic indigenous Canadian one – something that has seldom, if ever, borne the imprimatur of the federal government. To understand why this is special, one must realise that despite its nickname, the Great White North, Canada is a country whose political centre of gravity is wholly southern. The country’s tiny Arctic population has long been kept on the sidelines of the Canadian political arena, and what has usually passed for a ‘Canadian’ take on the Arctic has in reality been very much southern Canadian.
While acknowledging that, carried to the extreme, Canada’s vision could exclude and alienate, this article contends that the Canadian programme is on the whole an even-keeled proposal. Combining steadfast backing for the inhabitants of the Arctic and a cautiously open attitude towards extra-regional actors, it could be just what is required to ensure the Arctic’s development occurs in a balanced fashion.