KIRUNA, Sweden – Canada has officially taken over leadership of a newly broadened circumpolar world, beginning a two-year stint as head of an eight-member group of countries around the North Pole that is the primary international forum on northern issues.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who is also a northern MP, will serve as chairwoman during Canada’s leadership.
She will be working with a larger group of countries interested in the North. At its meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, on Wednesday, the council expanded the number of non-Arctic countries allowed to monitor discussions. China, South Korea, Japan, India and Italy have all been granted observer status after years of asking for it.
The European Union, which has been seeking the same status, was denied because of Canada’s concerns over the effects EU legislation banning the import of seal products has on northern communities.
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Canada and the EU will work to try to ease those concerns, said a federal official at the meeting.
“We’re pleased to continue to work with the EU on specific ways to address Canada’s concerns about seal products,” she said.
Before Wednesday’s decision, the council had six observer nations. There are also nine inter-governmental organizations and 11 non-governmental groups with the same status.
The council, as expected, also adopted an agreement on marine oil pollution preparedness — the second legally binding treaty negotiated by the council and a sign of its growing diplomatic importance.
Canada’s agenda was also adopted. That agenda promises to place northerners at the forefront of the council’s discussions and to emphasize business and resource development.
The World Wildlife Fund, which has observer status, said the council is slowly making progress. The group praised agreements on oil spills and biodiversity and talks to strengthen shipping regulations. But it pointed out a deal on black carbon, or soot, was blocked and there has been little progress on reducing the impacts of climate change.
“They have not completely ignored these issues, but have put them on the back burner for two years,” said Alexander Shestakov, the World Wildlife Fund’s director of Arctic programs.