On the 25th November 2020, the Canada-Russia Research Initiative and the Canadian International Council’s (@thecic) Victoria Branch at the University of Victoria (@uvic) hosted a discussion panel titled “The Past, Present and Future of Arctic Cooperation.”

The panel included Hon. Lloyd Axworthy (former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Government of Canada), Ambassador Alison LeClaire (Canadian Ambassador to Russia and former Director General of Arctic, Eurasian and European Affairs with the Canadian government), and Ambassador Jeremy Kinsman (former Canadian Ambassador to Russia). The panel was chaired by Hon. Mary Collins. Three main themes emerged from the panel presentations: increasing international interest in the Arctic, the evolution and future of the Arctic Council and Canada-Russia relations.  

In his presentation, Axworthy’s focused on his work in the 1990s in helping to push for greater Arctic cooperation. He reflected that up until the 1990s, Canada was not really engaged in its own Arctic region outside of the process of negotiating the establishment of Nunavut. However, this started to change with the end of the Cold War and Canada’s emerging leadership in helping establish the Arctic Council and the influence of Mary Simon in pushing Canada to prioritize the Arctic region.

On contemporary Arctic issues, Axworthy commented that “the Arctic is the classic canary in the coal mine” and is an area in which Canada should invest more, particularly in areas of security such as food security, military infrastructure and connectivity. A key comment of his on the subject was “if money is a problem, it shows it’s not a priority.” In his view Canada, through its lack of investment, is showing that the Arctic is not a high enough priority.  

LeClaire focused her contributions to the panel more on the status of current Canada-Russian relations and some reflections on her experience as a previous Senior Arctic Official for Canada at the Arctic Council. LeClaire stressed that the Arctic is an area, by virtue of geography, that Canada and Russia must cooperate on since together 75 per cent of Canada’s and Russia’s national territory is in the Arctic region and both countries face future challenges such as the impact of permafrost thaw on northern infrastructure. She also notes that 10 per cent of Russia’s GDP comes from its Arctic, which underscores the importance of the region to the country’s economy and why it is a growth area for Canada-Russia relations. LeClaire sees a people centric approach being an effective path forward in bilateral and regional relationships, but notes that distance and the cost of travel in the Arctic remain major obstacles to cooperation.

On the subject of the Arctic Council, LeClaire believes that leaving out national security issues from the forum has left the Arctic Council “relatively buffered” and does not believe that the forum is the venue for discussing security issues outside of the Arctic region. This comment links to continued Canada-Russia tensions on the subject of Crimea, which LeClaire references as Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea.” While the subject of Crimea continues to impact Canada-Russian relations, LeClaire believes the relationship has warmed somewhat from a frost to a chill and that misunderstandings about this change has led to missed opportunities for investment and research.  LeClaire points to a 2020 bilateral bison reintroduction scheme (bison from Canada to Yakutia, Russia) as an example of improving relations between the two countries.

Finally, Kinsman highlighted the unique aspects of the Arctic Council, noting that key features are the people centric nature of its work and Russia’s buy-in to the forum. He sees the forum and its 20 plus years of success as recognition that the Arctic states and peoples are in the common stewardship of the Arctic region together, and that because the forum‘s actors tends to “shy away from grand schemes”, it enables the council to be a model for stable entrepreneurial leadership for regional cooperation. As a result of the Arctic’s and the council’s growing profile, Kinsman believes that sometimes the core forum members can be jealous about outsiders wanting in on their region and its opportunities.

As for Canada-Russia relations, Kinsman believes it has been in a period of freeze for several years, since the 2014 Crimea conflict, and the relationship needs to improve. He sees the over exaggeration of the risks posed by Russia to Canada in the Arctic as unproductive. Since Canada and Russia are neighbours with many things in common geographically, culturally and regionally in the Arctic, Kinsman argues that more should be done to open dialogue and cooperation between the two countries.

This panel event was recorded by its organizers. Hopefully it will be available soon from the Canadian International Council website and you can listen to the panelists talk more in-depth about their views on Canada’s Arctic past, present and future.

Note: The cover photo was taken by Danita Catherine Burke in Yukon, Whitehorse and the zoom photo is a screen shot taken during the event; Photo copyrights: Danita Catherine Burke