Six takeaways from this week's U.S.-Canada joint Arctic statement

From what this means for the bilateral relationship to the confusion over drilling, Heather Exner-Pirot breaks down this week’s announcement.

By: /
December 22, 2016
U.S. President Barack Obama views Bear Glacier on a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau simultaneously released a United States-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement. The statement follows on from a similar declaration made on March 10 of this year, making the Arctic the source of the most prominent U.S.-Canada bilateral cooperation during the short window that the Trudeau and Obama mandates have overlapped. Here are six main takeaways from the announcement.

1. It departs from Canada’s prioritization of Northerners in its Arctic policy.

Since the early 1990s, when both Nunavut and the Arctic Council were being established, Canada has made “the Peoples of the North” a priority in its Arctic foreign policy making, certainly more so than the United States and other Arctic nations. Canada is usually the one pushing such issues as economic development, mental health and traditional knowledge in regional fora, while other states have more predictably prioritized environmental protection and oceans issues. 

This week’s joint statement on the Arctic marks a departure from this tendency and aligns Canadian Arctic foreign policy more squarely with American inclinations. It demonstrates a lot more influence from, first, the Obama administration and the way it has imagined the Arctic region and American interests therein; and second, from environmentalist groups such as WWF and Oceans North Canada, whose agendas are clearly evident in the documents and who boast alumni currently in senior Canadian government roles.  

2. Canada is doubling down on Obama’s Arctic legacy.

Much has been made about Obama and Trudeau’s ‘bromance.’ The first joint statement in March and the second released this week — and thus Arctic cooperation — are probably the most tangible outcomes of that relationship. The Prime Minister’s Office looks to have been the instigator of this bilateral cooperation, more so than Global Affairs Canada.

Even if you admire the commitment to principle, it is valid to wonder how wise it is for Canada to so publicly hitch its wagon to a lame duck president when the incoming U.S. president (however odious) and his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, are almost certain to have different priorities.

I think we now know why U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden popped up in Ottawa earlier this month; this announcement helps solidify the Obama administration’s climate legacy and Biden was probably looking to ensure it went through. But the realist in me is not so sure Canada won’t be left holding the bag on these new commitments in the new year. Even if Trump can’t overturn the ban on offshore oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, cooperation on the other initiatives outlined in the statement could be threatened, including regional fisheries management; a coordinated proposal to the International Maritime Organization to phase down heavy fuel oils (HFO); and planning on vessel routing measures.

3. Environmentalists are happy there will be no more drilling. But there wasn’t any drilling.

The environmental provisions in the statement all seem to be valid, commonsensical and constructive. But particular excitement and attention is being paid to the “indefinite” designation of the vast majority of U.S waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and all Canadian Arctic waters, as off limits to future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing.

A lot of people seem to think there is oil drilling in these areas, thanks to Greenpeace’s communications savvy. But there isn’t. Canadian Arctic offshore oil and gas is particularly unviable, and Shell pulled out of its Alaskan Arctic exploration last year due to the expense and risk. So Tuesday’s announcement does little more than preserve the status quo and will have zero impact on mitigating current carbon emissions. 

4. This is a victory for global over local interests.

At the crux of Arctic political debate is the tension between environmental protection and sustainable development. The Arctic region has been defined as pristine, vulnerable and in need of defending from the ravages of climate change. Meanwhile, the few people that live there are in dire need of economic development, not only to provide jobs and income but to fund self-determination. The irony of the ‘Arctic paradox’ — whereby oil and gas and other non-renewables have become more accessible due to the climate changes that oil and gas and other non-renewables have engendered — is at the centre of this debate, as many find Arctic resource development particularly distasteful.

It has become cliché to remark that “the Arctic affects us all,” and that the seven billion people who live south of the Arctic Circle have a vested interest in the Arctic remaining cold. Closing the Arctic off for oil drilling is thus portrayed as a victory for humanity and against climate change. The only ones who bear the costs are local residents who have lost the potential for future economic development. Even if off-shore drilling in the North American Arctic is currently unviable, this kind of announcement tarnishes the image of all types of Arctic non-renewable resource development.

Although northern Canadian leaders have conceded that off-shore oil drilling was improbable off their coasts, they have expressed valid concerns over being left out of the decision-making. Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod complained he only found out about the Arctic drilling ban two hours before the announcement, and Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna called it “disappointing” that there was no real involvement from the North. I am confused as to what the Liberals’ strategy was on this — what gains they saw by keeping the territories out of the loop.

Alaskans have been even more forthright: Governor Bill Walker called the move “akin to saying that outside voices are more important than the voices, lives, and livelihoods of Arctic residents.” Senator Dan Sullivan stated that “the President betrayed Alaskans today — especially those living in the Arctic — who were not consulted, and instead gave one final Christmas gift to coastal environmental elites.” And the CEO of the Iñupiat-owned Arctic Slope Corporation vowed to “fight this legacy move by the outgoing president with every resource at our disposal.” The Alaskan Arctic was a bust for Shell, but its exploration drilling funneled billions of dollars into the state’s economy.  Under the new policy, no other oil companies will be able to repeat that gamble.

There has been a lot of talk recently about obtaining social license before moving ahead on energy projects. The converse — obtaining social license before quashing energy projects — does not seem to hold true here.

5. The Canadian government privileges the Inuit.

In the statement, it was announced that Canada will be co-developing a new Arctic Policy Framework with Northerners, territorial and provincial governments, and First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people — and that this new policy “will include an Inuit-specific component.”

There is a widespread perception that the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic are Inuit, despite the fact that there are dozens of different Indigenous and ethnic groups across the Circumpolar North, and in Canada in particular the Arctic is also home to Dene, Gwich’in, and Métis. But Inuit have had the closest relationship to the federal government in the past several decades, negotiating the most financial transfers and benefits, the biggest land claims, and the most influence. They have also monopolized high-ranking northern diplomatic and government appointments: Mary Simon, a prominent Inuk leader, is currently serving as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s ministerial special representative on Arctic issues; Simon and Jack Anawak, who is also Inuk, are the only people to have served as Canada’s circumpolar ambassadors; and Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk from Gjoa Haven, served as chair of Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship and hosted the ministerial meeting in Iqaluit. The only territorial MPs I am aware of who have served in federal cabinet, at least in the recent past, were both Inuks from Nunavut: Aglukkaq and Hunter Tootoo.

I rarely hear the Gwich’in, Athabaskans, Yukon or Northwest Territories complain. But it seems obvious to me there is special treatment. 

6. North coast, best coast.

As with any policy statement, the devil is in the details. But the choice by Obama and Trudeau to highlight U.S.-Canada bilateral relations in the Arctic demonstrates what I have long maintained: the Arctic is a region where cooperation brings mutual benefit and interests are almost always shared. The initiatives announced have limited political and financial costs, but are big winners with the respective political leaders’ bases. 

Which leaves me with one final takeaway: noting these lessons, the next joint Arctic leader’s statement may well come from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

This article is published in partnership with Arctic Deeply