Canada's vision for the Arctic, its third coast

  • Article by: Brian Shipley
  • November 1, 2013 - 6:17 PM

The Arctic is a fundamental part of Canada. After the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Arctic is my country’s third ocean coast, making us a nation from sea to sea to sea.

In addition to Canada’s 10 provinces, we have three Arctic territories: Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and the newest, Nunavut, created in 1999 and home to a majority aboriginal population of the Inuit people, who had already been living there for hundreds of years before the first Vikings laid eyes on North America.

In the early days of the Cold War, the Arctic became an important strategic frontier and was the site of Canada-U.S. cooperation to guard North America against a possible Soviet threat. Today, the United States remains Canada’s premier partner in the Arctic; Canada and the U.S. have close bilateral ties that extend across a wide range of areas, from security to scientific research.

But today’s Arctic is also facing rapid changes in its climate and physical environment, with widespread effects for northern communities and ecosystems.

More than 4 million people live in the Arctic region, in the eight states that make up the intergovernmental Arctic Council (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States). Established in 1996, the Arctic Council is the leading multilateral forum that works to promote the environmental, social and economic aspects of sustainable development in the Arctic region.

Uniquely, in addition to its eight member states, the Arctic Council includes six organizations of Arctic indigenous peoples as permanent participants.

Canada has a clear vision for the Arctic, in which self-reliant individuals live in healthy, vital communities, manage their own affairs and shape their own destinies. As chair of the Arctic Council from 2013-2015, Canada is promoting the theme “Development for the People of the North.”

Canada is focusing the council’s work on initiatives that will make a difference in the lives of northerners, including responsible resource development, safe Arctic shipping and sustainable circumpolar communities. Two weeks ago, in Whitehorse, Yukon, the senior officials of Arctic Council members discussed these priorities at their first meeting under Canada’s chairmanship.

Economic development in the Arctic is essential, but it must be done in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner so that the land, water and animals that many northerners still depend upon are not negatively impacted. As one of its Arctic Council initiatives, Canada will be launching a circumpolar business council.

Though still relatively young, the Arctic Council already has a track record of effectiveness. It has produced comprehensive, cutting-edge environmental, ecological and social assessments on issues such as contaminants, biodiversity, emergency preparedness, environmental protection and sustainable development.

In addition, it has already led to two international binding agreements among member states, on search-and-rescue cooperation and marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

Of course, Canada’s concern for the Arctic is not new. In 2013, we are celebrating the centennial of the launch of the Canadian government’s first major project to explore, map, and know our Arctic lands and peoples.

The Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE), which took five years to complete, was a scientific research project of the first order. It added immensely to our knowledge of Canada’s Arctic islands, waters, wildlife, geography and inhabitants.

On Tuesday, the Canadian Consulate General will be cohosting a public symposium at the University of North Dakota to mark the CAE’s centennial and make the connection to Canada’s Arctic priorities today.

Why at UND? The CAE was led in the North by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Manitoba-born Canadian-American who grew up in North Dakota and attended UND — where he is still notorious for the irreverent pranks that led to his dismissal.

Stefansson went on to become one of the most influential polar explorers of the 20th century. He pioneered the idea of the “friendly Arctic” to explain the importance of using traditional indigenous knowledge to survive and even prosper in the harsh environment.

Today, traditional Inuit knowledge has a key place in the work of the Arctic Council, as we deal both with environmental change and economic growth. And, just as in 1913, the Canadian government puts a high priority on the Arctic, which is so fundamentally a part of our nation.

This is an important time in the history of the circumpolar region, a time of many changes. Through international cooperation in the Arctic Council, including the United States, it can also be a time for responsible development to enable sustainable communities for the people of the north.


Brian Shipley is consul of the Consulate General of Canada in Minneapolis. For conference details and to participate online, please visit, or find us on Twitter: @CanCGMPLS and #CAE100.

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