Arctic Assembly 2016

Carmen Bennett

More than 2000 delegates from 50 countries attended the fourth annual Arctic Circle Assembly, held October 7 to 9, 2016 in Reykjavik. The Assembly brought together policymakers, Indigenous representatives, scientists, business leaders, environmentalists, academics, and citizens from an international community that is increasingly devoted to the future of the Arctic. Session topics included environmental issues, development, research, infrastructure, security, health, shipping, resources, tourism, and innovation.

Arctic states and Indigenous communities were present, as were a number of non-Arctic states with evolving interest in the region. Specific sessions, for example, were led by delegations from South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, and France; others featured speakers from Japan, China, the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, addressed the Assembly on opening day.

International interest in the Arctic is on the rise, evident in terms of the growth in participation at this Assembly, and also in terms of those seeking observer status to the Arctic Council. As the U.S. is nearing the end of its Council chairmanship (Finland assumes this position in 2017), Admiral Robert Papp, U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic, spoke about the need to look to the future and to focus on cooperation and leadership moving forward. These themes resonated in the majority of sessions and speeches that followed.

Increased interest in the Arctic has largely been driven by awareness about climate change. Former Icelandic President Ólafur Grímsson (co-founder of Arctic Circle) presented UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with the first Arctic Circle Award, which recognized Mr. Ban’s leadership in promoting a global agenda to address climate change, citing the Paris Agreement and the advancement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as key milestones. Ban Ki-Moon’s address to the Assembly can be read here.

While understanding and addressing climate change impacts is essential, we must also recognize that the Arctic is multidimensional; we need to consider the many diverse issues, interests, and opportunities in the region. As an ocean surrounded by continents, the Arctic comes with an exceptional set of challenges. Activity in the ocean is guided by international law, while the surrounding continents are embedded with the particular interests of states and the often competing values of populations. Participants stressed that cooperation among researchers, governments, northern communities, and businesses is key to the international community’s shared understanding of these issues, and to more effective domestic and international responses.

Jane Harman, President of The Wilson Center, noted that many American citizens do not naturally consider the U.S. to be an Arctic state. Ms. Harman suggested that increasing awareness within the U.S. (particularly among young people) of the many complex issues, and of America’s position in the region, is critical for addressing challenges now and in the future. Arguably, this statement also holds value in the Canadian context. While the North is undoubtedly embedded in Canadian geographical and cultural identity, we might not automatically consider what that means in terms of our proximity to, and relations with, other Arctic states. On a continental level, we identify as North American; less-often do we look at a top-view map and consider that our borders are actually closer to Russia, Greenland (Denmark), and Iceland than they are to Mexico.

Canada’s position in this region is unique, and we have a distinct role to play moving forward. Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that the North captures our imagination like no other region; it is ‘a part of our future and a place of extraordinary potential’. In the Arctic, Ms. Goldsmith-Jones stated, ‘Canada needs to work with all of our partners, even those we fundamentally disagree with’.

Stephen Van Dine, Assistant Deputy Minister for Northern Affairs, reported on policy developments and ongoing work in Canada’s North. Mr. Van Dine highlighted that Canada’s experience has been different from that of many other countries, with respect to its long-term focus on land claims resolutions, devolution, and development of co-management institutions. Canada’s complex governance environment, he stated, has given rise to the partnerships and institutions that will enable us to move forward.

Ms. Goldsmith-Jones and Mr. Van Dine both cited the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Research. In addition to the Statement's ‘four goals’—i.e. ‘conserving Arctic biodiversity through science-based decision-making’; ‘incorporating Indigenous science and traditional knowledge into decision-making’; ‘building a sustainable Arctic economy’; and ‘supporting strong Arctic communities’—Mr. Van Dine emphasized that Canada’s work in the North includes investment to support specific initiatives, including: Inuit housing, Nutrition North Canada, the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy, strategic environmental assessments, and ecoENERGY and climate change adaptation programming.

Mr. Van Dine and the Honourable Monica Ell-Kanayuk, Deputy Premier of Nunavut, also spoke in a session devoted to mental well-being in northern communities, during which they discussed some specific issues being addressed in Canada’s North. Coverage of these speeches is available at

Realistically, development in the Arctic should not be considered a dirty word; long-term development will be necessary to meet present and future needs. Aaja Chemnitz, Member of the Danish Parliament for Greenland, highlighted that any such activity needs to consider a human dimension and development of human capital. The more we can think about development in economic and ecologically sustainable terms, the more opportunity will exist in the long-term. This may include, for example, infrastructure to better enable search and rescue in Arctic waters; infrastructure that will allow off-grid communities, such as in the Northwest Territories, to phase out reliance on diesel for electricity and heat; reliable communications technology and infrastructure; institutions to support the provision of resources and services; procedures for safe scientific research and responsible resource development; and provisions to support sustainable tourism.

At present, we have an opportunity and responsibility to focus more fully on preparation, safety, and education with respect to polar activity. Such preparation is already occurring in critical areas. For example, the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code) comes into effect in January 2017. Implementing such measures at this time is essential, recognizing, for instance, that a limited number of ships already navigate polar waters, and maritime activity from Arctic and non-Arctic states is expected to diversify in the long-term. Preparation and cooperation is crucial to ensure any such activity remains safe for people and the environment.

Additionally, it is important for younger generations to become engaged and involved now, recognizing that the Arctic will be a changing region for a long time to come, not only in terms of climate, but also in terms of international interest, opportunities for economic investment, and human security. Attendance from young participants at the Assembly has grown, though is still lacking. While a number of student groups from the U.S. were present and active in session dialogue, by comparison, I came across few young participants from Canada. It was promising to see that a specific youth-led breakout session featured an international panel of young people, including one Canadian student, who shared their priorities for the region (video available here). It would be even more promising to see a youth-led panel incorporated into the plenary sessions in years to come (this has been discussed, though not yet confirmed).

It is reassuring that we can expect more youth involvement in Arctic dialogue moving forward. As Admiral Papp stated, while it is important to celebrate our achievements during the first 20 years of the Arctic Council, ‘we should rather be focused on where we want to be in the next 20 years’. Indeed, the Arctic we are working towards is the Arctic of future generations. We are being given an opportunity to test the limits of human cooperation, and, as a number of Assembly participants stated, in the Arctic ‘we want to be on the right side of history’.

More Information:

The Arctic Circle Assembly is held annually at Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center in Reykjavik. More information, including videos, photos, program details, and registration is available at The Arctic Circle also organizes smaller Forums, focusing on specific areas of Arctic cooperation. The next Forum will be held in Quebec City in December 11-13, 2016.

Author bio: Carmen recently completed a Master’s in Public Policy at King’s College London. Prior to this, she worked as a communications professional in Vancouver, helping to develop and deliver strategic communications, consultation, and public engagement strategies for clients in the public, private, and third sectors. Carmen holds a BA in International Relations from the University of British Columbia, as well as a qualification from the Public Relations Certificate Program at Simon Fraser University. She was raised in Kelowna, BC.