Speech written by Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, marking the 20th anniversary of the Arctic Council
September 29, 2016 - Ottawa, Ontario
As we gather today at Carleton University to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Arctic Council, let us take stock of what the North means to Canadians.
The North, covering 40 percent of our territory and home to more than 100,000 inhabitants, of whom more than half are Indigenous, is at the heart of our identity.
Yes, we have a northern soul: “The true north strong and free.” Few places on earth evoke more glorious images than the North. It is the land of the aurora, where the northern lights dance across the darkened sky at nightfall, and the land of the midnight sun and of polar days that go on forever under light that never fades.
Our northern belonging fills us with pride—a pride that we owe first and foremost to the Canadians who actually live in the North.
For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples survived and thrived in the cold and the snow. We owe them so much, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are committed to showing it. This is what Canadians want. It is what the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama said last March, in Washington D.C., in the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy and Arctic Leadership: as Arctic nations, our shared future rests on the people who have made the North their home.
As we speak, our very dedicated minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, Carolyn Bennett, is consulting all over Canada about the best approach for the North. She has surrounded herself with some of the most competent Canadian experts who know the Arctic best, including the brightest scientists and those who bring traditional knowledge to the table. Among them is Minister Bennett’s special representative, Mary Simon, a remarkable leader who helped create the Arctic Council 20 years ago along with my predecessor and former colleague, Lloyd Axworthy.
Minister Bennett has been very clear that socio-economic development for northern inhabitants will be at the heart of her preoccupations: the resilience of their communities, the opportunities for their children, the caring for their mental and physical health, and the preservation of their languages and culture.
It is all the more important to remember that the well-being of northern people is being challenged by great shifts in the North’s physical and economic environments. The Arctic is attracting more and more economic activity. It will be the site of major, new economic projects. Its resources are increasingly coveted. Its navigation routes are opening. All the while, its ecosystem remains as fragile as ever.
The North is an essential part of our future and a place of extraordinary potential. More than ever, the world will count on Canada as a responsible steward of this great barometer of our planet. Northern resources, explored responsibly, offer huge potential for increased economic development. But if these resources are exploited irresponsibly, it will be a disaster not only for us but for all of humanity.
How can we not be profoundly troubled by the negative effects of climate change that we can already see in the Arctic—temperature increases, greater precipitation, shorter and warmer winters, and decreases in ice, snow and permafrost cover—changes that are likely to persist for centuries?
These changes will affect not only northern inhabitants but also the whole planet. All of us.
Arctic vegetation zones are shifting. Insect outbreaks and forest fires are increasing in frequency, severity and duration. Reductions in sea ice are shrinking marine habitat, not just for polar bears but for seals and seabirds, pushing some species toward extinction.
Changing snow, ice and permafrost conditions are jeopardizing community infrastructure and hunting, fishing and herding activities—the very activities that have sustained communities for generations.
Shortened winter road seasons are causing disruptions and increased costs for northern residents, making food and supplies less affordable.
Melting of the highly reflective Arctic snow and ice reveals darker land and ocean surfaces, increasing absorption of the sun’s heat and further warming the planet.
Increases of glacial melt and river runoff add more freshwater to the ocean, raising global sea levels and possibly slowing the ocean circulation that brings heat from the tropics to the poles, affecting global and regional climates.
We see these changes and, quite rightly, fear them. But we cannot ignore them; nor can we turn the clock back 100 years. Our choice must be responsible and respectful development of the Arctic’s natural resources in ways that bring positive outcomes to northern communities and that mitigate negative impacts using the most reliable evidence available. Collaboration with and among governments at all levels, Indigenous communities, scientists, the private sector, and technical and policy experts is critical.
Yes, our excellent minister of the environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, is at the heart of this fight for sustainable development. But she and Minister Bennett cannot succeed alone: all the ministers need to be mindful of the ecosystems of the North.
And while I am talking about cooperation, let us talk about this organization whose 20th anniversary we are celebrating today. Let’s remember that eight countries make up the Arctic: the Kingdom of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States and Canada. And nothing would be worse than each of these countries trying to exploit the maximum instead of working with the other countries to promote responsible stewardship. Nothing could be worse than militarization based on mistrust between these countries that are neighbours.
The Arctic Council is the way to create cooperation among eight countries that cling strongly to their sovereignty. We can be proud as Canadians that the Arctic Council was largely the product of our diplomacy and leadership under former prime minister Jean Chrétien.
In the words of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, words later borrowed by the current U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the aim is, and I quote, “One Arctic: shared opportunities, challenges and responsibilities.”
Canada and its seven Arctic neighbours have a responsibility to protect the North, and the world is counting on us. We are joined by 12 other countries with observer status, in addition to the European Union. The world is in better shape because the Arctic Council exists.
And indeed, since the Ottawa Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council was signed in the West Block of Parliament on September 19, 1996—20 years ago—we have done much to prove the council’s worth.
Let me give you a few examples:
- Indigenous peoples of these Arctic countries have been included at the table so their concerns and perspectives are incorporated into the discussion. Arctic challenges cannot be addressed without working with the people who live there. It is one of the council’s defining features and gives it more domestic, regional and international legitimacy.
- Two binding agreements among the eight Arctic states have been negotiated: one on search and rescue, signed in 2011, and the other on oil pollution preparedness and response, signed in 2013. Work is continuing on a third agreement related to Arctic scientific cooperation.
- Landmark studies have been published on environmental pollutants, shipping, tourism, safety and search and rescue, conservation of biodiversity, oil pollution response, human health (including mental wellness), Indigenous languages, and of course, climate change. As minister of the environment in 2004, I was fortunate to represent Canada at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Iceland when the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment was released—a groundbreaking assessment on the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.
- The Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions was concluded, which lays out a common vision for Arctic states to accelerate the decline in overall black carbon emissions and to significantly reduce overall methane emissions.
- And finally, the newly created Arctic Economic Council promotes business, trade and investment opportunities in the region.
Yes, much has been accomplished, and it should give us the momentum to redouble our efforts. The Arctic Council will be essential for the economic development of the people of the North, for the responsible extraction of resources of the North and for the preservation of this ecosystem, which is essential for the health of the whole planet.
Fortunately, the Government of Canada has engaged itself resolutely to science- and evidence-based decision making. The success of the Arctic Council strongly depends on the scientific understanding we have of the North.
Yesterday, my colleague, the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, was in Washington, D.C., to discuss Arctic science.
We also must remember—and I emphasize this point—that we have another pole to worry about: the Antarctic. Conditions are different, but there are also resemblances. Cooperation will be necessary at all levels—political, diplomatic and scientific—to link the destinies of the poles.
To continue on the importance of cooperation, let’s insist on the crucial relationship that must exist between Canada and Russia. Almost 50 percent of the North is Russian, and some 25 percent is Canadian. Between us we control 75 percent of the North. Preventing scientists from these countries from talking is illogical. Our government has put an end to this irrationality. To sever the links with Russia, our neighbour, serves the interests of no one. Neither Canadians nor Russians nor Ukrainians. No one.
When Prime Minister Trudeau talked to President Vladimir Putin, and when I had my meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, we signalled our profound disagreement with Russia’s unacceptable policies in Ukraine. We told them that Russia’s actions represented a clear breach of international law and undermined peace and security in the region. And this is why we are taking a leadership role in enhancing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s, NATO’s, deterrence, including through the command of a multinational battalion in Latvia.
NATO’s policy is deterrence and dialogue, as Canada’s policy will be. And at the core of this dialogue will be the North.
Responsible conviction means engaging even when we disagree. When I met with Minister Lavrov in July, we made Arctic cooperation a priority. It can be no other way.
Cooperation with Russia on the full range of Arctic issues is simply in our best interests. And by the way, I am pleased to know that a Canada-Russia Arctic conference is planned for late November, with Carleton University again playing host.
Diplomacy and cooperation—with all members of the Arctic Council—are vital, which is why it is important that the Arctic be well and peacefully managed. The North is not a place for military confrontation or buildup. The Arctic Council is a forum for consensus. No consensus is possible without Canada and Russia working together, as difficult as that may be at times.
Our government will build stronger relationships with all Arctic states, particularly as the next Arctic Council chair, Finland, looks to build the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 into its chairmanship program. These goals are just as important for the circumpolar north—our own North—as they are anywhere else in the world.
After two decades, Canada’s vision for the Arctic Council has become a reality, though it remains a work in progress:
- It has strengthened our identity as an Arctic nation.
- It has strengthened our relations with our Arctic neighbours.
- It has strengthened the profile of the Arctic domestically and internationally.
Not everyone will be fortunate enough to visit the Arctic and see its beauty, its majesty, with their own eyes. But ignoring the Arctic would be an unforgiveable mistake.
Canada is committed to the Arctic and its people, and, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will play a leadership role on the international stage for the sustainable development of the region.
Let me finish with a quote from Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the great northern leader, who recently published The Right to Be Cold:
“If you want to know how healthy the world is, come to the Arctic and feel its pulse.”
Original text available at: Minister Dion speech on Arctic