OTTAWA – The U.S. envoy to Canada says the Arctic Council is a great venue for his country to talk to Russia despite Moscow’s differences with the West over Ukraine.
Ambassador Bruce Heyman told The Canadian Press important progress can be made by the full engagement with the eight-country council in dealing with a wide range of issues, including environmental protection and maritime safety.
The U.S. took over the rotating chairmanship of the council last year from Canada, and Heyman is bound for the Arctic on a nine-day diplomatic tour departing Sunday to more than a dozen locations with his fellow Ottawa-based envoys.
The trip comes after the March 10 meeting at the White House between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Barack Obama, where the two leaders affirmed environmental co-operation in the Arctic.
The Liberals have come under fire from the Conservative opposition for their desire to open diplomatic dialogue with Russia. The Conservatives accuse the Liberals of being disloyal to Ukraine, which has been dealing with Russian aggression across its eastern borders since 2014 when its Crimean peninsula was unilaterally annexed.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion has said it is in Canada’s national interest to talk to Russia, especially about the Arctic, but the Conservatives say that amounts to cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Heyman says the fact that his country can hold face-to-face talks with Russia across the Arctic Council table amounts to a “good news story.”
“The Arctic Council provides that venue of being free from the influences of the challenges that we face globally,” Heyman said in an interview.
“We are maintaining our activities related to protecting the Arctic, protecting the environment, ensuring maritime safety, conducting law-enforcement operations, whatever we need to do.
“We’re doing this together.”
Dion said Canada has “custody of the Arctic” but needs the help of other countries to protect it.
“We need to work with the Americans, we need to work with the Danes, we need to work with the Russians. That’s a responsibility that all of these countries have for one of the most fragile ecosystems, which is the barometer of the planet,” Dion said in an interview.
Heyman characterized the new level of co-operation between Canada and the United States on environmental issues in the Arctic as unprecedented.
“We worked very closely with Canada under the Harper government,” when Canada chaired the Arctic Council, he said.
“It’s clear the Trudeau government has emphasized climate change and taken a very substantial leaning-in position on climate change, which is a bit different than what we were experiencing.”
He said there’s lots of work to be done to deal with the inevitable changes that will come with melting sea ice, which will lead to increasing international ship traffic across northern waters. In turn, that will mean fleets determined to tap the Arctic’s resource wealth – from oil and gas to abundant fish stocks.
Russia sees the Arctic as a sphere of influence, and China – which is not a council member – has said it will begin sending ships into the Northwest Passage to shave thousands of kilometres off the journey between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
“We don’t have a position on how the passage is going to be used for commercial traffic,” Heyman said, when asked about the presence of Chinese ships in the North.
But a major focus for Canada and the U.S. will be working with indigenous northern populations to help them cope with the increased traffic, the effects of climate change, and to find alternatives to the carbon-heavy diesel fuel that is the main energy source for many remote northern communities, he said.
Heyman said the extensive trip will allow him to “learn about the North from the northerners themselves.”
Global Affairs Canada says the foreign diplomatic corps stops will include Churchill Falls, Iqaluit, Cape Dorset, Resolute, Cambridge Bay, Inuvik, Old Crow, Dawson City, Yellowknife and Churchill, Man. The department did not provide a list of ambassadors invited.