Re-elected federal health minister Leona Aglukkaq has been tabbed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to represent Canada at a crucial international meeting of Arctic countries despite having little foreign affairs experience.
Aglukkaq, who represents Nunavut and is Inuit, will sit down at the table with foreign affairs heavyweights such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later this week in Greenland at the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council.
That meeting will help determine how the eight Arctic countries will govern the area in the future and will rule on the role on non-Arctic countries such as China and the European Union.
Some call it the council’s most important meeting since it was founded in 1996 in Ottawa.
“It is a big time,” said Michael Byers, arctic expert and professor of international law at the University of British Columbia. The Arctic Council, which brings together the eight nations that ring the Arctic, is increasingly seen as the world’s most important body on Arctic issues. This meeting, to be held Thursday in Nuuk, Greenland, is expected to see the signing of an international treaty on search and rescue, believed to be the first time the council has been used to make international law.
“It is a breakthrough for the Arctic Council,” said Rob Huebert at the University of Calgary’s Institute for Strategic Studies.
He said the council is evolving into a new type of international governance body.
But the council will be expected to make other important decisions as well.
It will be asked whether to grant China and the European Union permanent observer status. It will also decide whether it will evolve into a full-time, year-round international body in preparation for a greater role in Arctic governance.
Many favour giving China and the EU a window into the council’s deliberations.
Denmark is expected to argue again that involving interested world powers ensures that the council remains relevant and the most important forum for discussing Arctic issues. China already has scientific and economic issues in the North and giving them observer status would help keep them onside with the rest of the world, say Danish diplomats.
He added that many of the reasons that Canada opposed observer status for the EU the last time the issue arose have disappeared. The Europeans no longer propose an international treaty for the Arctic along the lines of that which governs the Antarctic, for example.
But Huebert said giving other countries a role at the council — even observer status — could amplify their voices on issues where they disagree with Canada, such as Europe’s stance that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway.
He also said that new participants could dilute the voices of other observers, such as international aboriginal groups. European caution on northern resource development could work against the interests of Inuit who seek economic opportunity, he said.
“(The meeting) comes at an awkward time for Canada,” said Byers.
Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon was defeated in the recent election. Aglukkaq has little or no foreign affairs experience and will be expected to take part in a roundtable discussion with her counterparts from around the circumpolar world.
Aglukkaq will be accompanied by senior diplomatic staff, but could be at a disadvantage at a meeting expected to help shape the future of the Arctic.
“She will be out of her depth,” said Byers.
Still, being represented by an aboriginal northerner is “symbolically appropriate,” said Byers.
“It’s not perfect. But in the circumstances, it’s not the worst choice.”