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History of Arctic body best at early years

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/1/2014 (1326 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This well-written history of the creation of the Arctic Council is at its best in its description of the early years.

By providing the political context of world events in the lead-up to the council's creation in 1996, University of Toronto historian John English underscores the many pressures, agendas and personalities that pushed and pulled for its success and its demise.

The working assumption is that those who read this book are familiar with the Arctic Council, its mandate and members.

In brief, the council is an intergovernmental forum for countries with Arctic borders to discuss issues of mutual relevance to the Arctic. Its eight state members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. There are six indigenous groups and a host of state, non-state and intergovernmental observers.

English, best known for his two-volume biography of Pierre Trudeau, begins with a description of the famous explorers of the Arctic, including Frobisher, Davis, Baffin, Franklin and Parry, who transformed the Earth's northern reaches into a place on modern maps.

The chapters continue in chronological order through the great wars and Cold War with frequent references to Canada's Arctic policies and "acts of occupation."

English examines the early history of the Arctic Council in impressive detail. Its origins are in 1991 with the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), a Finnish initiative focused on environmental protection of the Arctic.

The Finns seized on an important speech made by Russian president Gorbachev in 1987 calling for an end to the militarization of the North (perhaps even a nuclear-free zone) and "an integrated comprehensive plan for protecting the natural environment of the North," English writes

As soon as the AEPS was launched, however, Canada suggested that a new forum should be created that focused on environmental protection and sustainable development

It is his examination of Canada's attempts to create a new "arctic council" that highlights English's expertise as a historian. He provides depth to the many characters responsible for the lurching progress toward a Declaration of the Establishment of the Arctic Council.

Mary Simon, Canada's first ambassador for circumpolar affairs and former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, features throughout the book as a force to be reckoned with and the primary driver of the council's creation.

Other parties, such as former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy and academic Franklyn Griffiths, provide inside glimpses into the bickering, tussling and compromising that is inevitable when eight states, all with different agendas, gather to create a new forum.

The back-and-forth between Canada and the U.S.'s preferences for the Council are particularly rich.

Sadly, the recent years of the council are only skimmed. The rotating chairs are barely mentioned, and yet these years the Arctic Council provided its greatest achievements.

English's book, therefore, lacks balance in terms of the attention paid after Canada's inaugural chair of the council.

To be fair, because it is a history of the Arctic Council and not simply an account of decisions made, it is understandable that the lead-up to the council's creation is prominent.

Yet these latest years demand revisiting. One can only imagine what delicious anecdotes English could tell regarding the hand-wringing before the eight Arctic states voted to accept China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy as the latest non-Arctic state observers while delaying decisions on the applications by Greenpeace and the European Union.

Canada's current chair of the council (2013-2015) thus far has been underwhelming. Perhaps it is prescient that English's concluding chapter is also a summary of what has been accomplished by the council in the last decade.

This does not just end the book; it may portend the conclusion of the council's utility. Or it could mean a new beginning.


Andrea Charron is the deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.


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