Speech - Massey College

Cooperation, Stability, and Security in the Arctic: Strategies for Moving Forward

| January 2024

In November 2023, a conference was held at Massey College, University of Toronto, on the subject of Arctic security, to address the question: How can we engage Russia in the shared pursuit of pan-Arctic security, stability, and cooperation, while still holding it to account for its egregious violation of international law in invading Ukraine?

Arctic Initiative Senior Fellow Jennifer Spence and Initiative Advisory Board Member Sara Olsvig were among the experts from Canada, Greenland, Germany, Norway, and the United States who gathered to discuss the prospects for enhancing cooperation rather.

Abstracts of Spence and Olsvig's presentations are republished below with permission from the conference organizers. Read the full conference report

Arctic Governance: What We Knew, Where We Are, Where We Would Like to Be

Remarks by Jennifer Spence during the conference's closing session

This event explored a range of themes—from classic Arctic governance and defense issues to scientific cooperation and a broader suite of less conventional security issues. In these discussions, we heard a spectrum of views, and discussions regularly acknowledged the interconnections between the many issues being discussed. It is not possible to comprehensively summarize these rich and nuanced discussions. Instead, I would like to highlight some observations about the presentations and discussions that speak to the topics of Arctic cooperation, stability, and security. 

What we knew

To fully understand the current situation in the Arctic, it must be contrasted with what was there before. As one speaker pointed out, the Arctic was commonly summed up by the phase “high north, low tension.” Discussions also focused on the idea of “Arctic exceptionalism” that emerged because of the peace and cooperation sustained by the eight Arctic states following the Cold War; however, this moniker can also refer to the region’s unique environments, the Arctic’s distinctive role in global climate systems, and the impressive examples of scientific cooperation in the Arctic. But perhaps most importantly, the Arctic’s exceptionalism is acknowledged and made possible because of the important role played by the region’s Indigenous Peoples. Arctic Indigenous Peoples have worked hard for decades to be included in the governance of the region and their involvement has fundamentally shaped the inclusive, consensus-based, and holistic governance approach that has been adopted by so many of its institutions. By extension, it is through the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples that the Arctic has gained credibility and legitimacy as a unique governance space.

Where we are

It is against this historical backdrop that we can begin to appreciate the shock (and even sense of loss) that those passionate about the governance of the Arctic have experienced with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the spillover effects in the region. Presenters described a time of risk, uncertainty, and instability, including to the safety of the region’s peoples and environments. Despite the desire to define a clear path forward, the diverse issues and perspectives that were shared at this event highlight that the current situation is messy, complex, evolving, and dynamic. No one has the full picture. What did appear clear from the discussions was that this can no longer be treated as a short-term conflict where we can expect a return to “business as usual.” We can expect that the tensions that now exist in the region will be prolonged and chronic. This means that we will need to adapt, evolve, and find new modes of cooperation. What the discussions also exposed is that these tensions are different at different levels (e.g. local, national, sub-regional, regional, and global), and we need to understand that this, in fact, creates competing imperatives. Furthermore, it is unclear what priority will be placed on resolving tensions at the circumpolar level that might conflict with national or global interests.

Lastly, the discussions at this event highlighted that we need to be careful to differentiate between the narratives and the reality of cooperation in the Arctic. There is a common narrative that treats cooperation between the West and Russia as impossible in the current context, yet we know that there are situations where cooperation has continued (e.g. fisheries, Coast Guards, the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement, the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UNCLOS). There is also a narrative that assures us that Arctic cooperation is alive and well through the Arctic Council, but while the Council may be intact, we do not have to dig very deeply to see that Arctic cooperation within the Council and beyond is severely weakened. We also must acknowledge that the decision to cooperate or define the shape of that cooperation with Russia is not completely up to us. In recent months, Russia has increasingly constrained opportunities for scientific cooperation. Ultimately, we need to have honest and frank conversations about the future of Arctic cooperation, stability and security that acknowledge that there are consequences of both engaging and not engaging with Russia. As one speaker pointed out, “geography will always make us neighbors, that doesn’t mean we have to be friends.” 

Where we would like to be

When it comes to questions about where we would like cooperation with Russia in the Arctic to be, the discussions at this event diverged significantly. There were differing perspectives on what issues warranted or would benefit from cooperation with Russia, who to cooperate with, under what conditions cooperation should even be considered, and even whether cooperation was desirable. These different perspectives illustrate the diversity of views that we have heard in the public discourse over the last two years and demonstrate that there is no “right” answer. The path(s) forward that we can envision are based on different understandings, assumptions, and values. It will be a difficult balancing act that will require course corrections as circumstances evolve. However, perhaps, if we accept that there is no “return” to business as usual, we are freed to envision a future based on historical experience, but not constrained by it. 

Strategies for moving forward

With a vision for Arctic cooperation, stability, and security still fuzzy and contested, I want to highlight three core strategies for moving forward that I drew from these discussions: 

  1. Make space for bottom-up cooperation: These can be opportunities to sustain and/or build relationships and trust on both sides. This includes 1) people-to-people connections, where Arctic Indigenous Peoples have played and can continue to play a leadership role in defining the approach and setting the agendas; and 2) research and science linkages, whether through direct collaboration or (perhaps more realistically at this point) making information and data publicly available. 
  2. Invest in and leverage Arctic institutions: The Arctic Council has served as a central node in a rich network of institutions – from formal issue-specific agreements and broad scientific associations to conferences and informal partnerships. These institutions and the connections between them require attention to survive and (hopefully) thrive. Without this investment, this network, that took decades of work to build, risks atrophy and the loss of expertise, good will and social capital that these relationships represent. Similarly, we need to invest in sustaining the culture and spirit of Arctic governance, which includes efforts to maintain an inclusive, consensus-based, and holistic approach. The Arctic Council set a bar for other institutions both within and outside the Arctic that does not need to be a casualty of current or future geopolitical tensions. 
  3. Continue dialogue about Arctic cooperation during times of uncertainty: Now more than ever, we need to continue to have open, informed discussions about the future of Arctic cooperation – something this event offered. We need to consider the purpose(s) of Arctic cooperation, the continually evolving and dynamic circumstances, and the path(s) forward. We need to listen to and consider the diverse ideas and perspectives of knowledge holders, experts, leaders and officials, who understand and care about the Arctic and its governance. 

Arctic Indigenous Peoples Strengthen Arctic Governance

Remarks by Sara Olsvig during Panel 1 - "Arctic Governance Organizations Promoting Cooperation"

The first Arctic Peoples’ Conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1973. Here Indigenous Peoples of Canada, Greenland, and the three Nordic countries Norway, Sweden, and Finland gathered in Copenhagen, for what became a historic event, forging decades of coordinated advocacy and cooperation continuously evolving thereafter. The conference agreed on two resolutions; one calling for the recognition of Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ “rights as peoples entitled to the dignity of self-fulfillment and realization,” that there “must not be any displacement or interference with [those] rights by governments and/or industry, [or] any disturbance to [their] lands,” and that in any crucial negotiations they expected “participation in a position of full equality.” The conference participants furthermore proposed “to form a Circumpolar Body of Indigenous Peoples to pursue and advance our shared and collective interests. We emphasize that we are profoundly concerned about protecting now the interests of succeeding generations of our peoples.”

Since then, the cooperation was extended throughout the Arctic, and beyond. The contact established in 1973 became invaluable in international and regional developments, as a 1975 international Indigenous Peoples’ conference that followed resulted in the establishment of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. Furthermore, the 1973 gathering also resulted in Arctic Indigenous Peoples being ready to directly take part as soon as the more established UN processes to negotiation the status and rights of Indigenous Peoples began.

Throughout the processes, Arctic Indigenous Peoples contributed with worldviews, perspectives, and knowledge different from that put on the table in the predominantly Westphalian governance-driven systems, and that has been a clear strength and incentive for Arctic Indigenous Peoples to continue insisting on connectivity, unity, and recognition as peoples living across borders being recognized by state governments. When the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) was established in 1977, a call for the Soviet Union to allow for Russian Inuit to join the pan-Inuit organization was tabled. In 1992, after the end of the Cold War, ICC Chukotka became a formal and equal member of the Inuit organization. In the years before ICC Chukotka’s participation, empty seats at the tables demonstrated the continued principle put forward by Inuit in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, in insisting on being seen as one people, living across state borders in four very different jurisdictions. Before the end of the Cold War, delegations of Inuit leadership from Alaska, Canada, and Greenland traveled to Moscow to advocate for the contact and cooperation to be established, and delegations of Chukotka Inuit gradually started attending ICC gatherings through the 1980s.

Parallel to Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ building strong people-to-people cooperation across borders, spanning the whole Arctic, influence on international lawmaking and the participation in international agreements grew and manifested. The ICC and the Saami Council, still in existence today, as well as the then Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation, co-founded the Arctic Council in 1996 and pushed for the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations as representative institutions, side-by-side with the eight Arctic states, in the structure of the Arctic Council. The category of Permanent Participants was established with the Council, and the Rules of Procedures of the Council included the obligations to consult with the Indigenous Peoples from the outset. 

Today, the Arctic Council is going through its most severe existential crisis to date, but the fact that the Arctic Council still exists and is intact in the sense that no one—neither member states nor Permanent Participants—has left the table, is a testament to the devotion the states and Indigenous Peoples have to this unique governance body. The May 11, 2023 Joint Statement from the Arctic Council Meeting included the recognition of “the rights of Arctic Indigenous Peoples and the unique role of the Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council, their special relation to the Arctic and the importance of cross-border and people-to-people cooperation in the region.” The call for people-to-people cross-border cooperation was also an integral part of the Statement of the Arctic Peoples’ Conference, convened in Ilulissat, Greenland, in July 2023. Here, Arctic Indigenous Peoples celebrated the 50 years of cooperation and emphasized “the rights of Arctic Indigenous Peoples, [their] unique relationship to the Arctic, and [their] commitments to cross-border and people-to-people cooperation in the region” as well as reminding the co-founders (the states) “that [Arctic Indigenous Peoples’] consensus must be a prerequisite for any decision on all levels of the organization and that making decisions without consensus undermines its purpose and integrity.”

Although still intact in the sense of membership, the Arctic Council is not fully functional, which puts the influence of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples at risk. Written procedures for decision-making have for the time being replaced the direct deliberations conducted in- person in meeting rooms, where the consensus-based decision-making had grown to include the Permanent Participants. The aim of the May 11 Arctic Council Meeting Joint Statement to “work to safeguard and strengthen the Arctic Council” thus needs careful consideration, if the Council is not permanently weakened by the current disruption. 

The Norwegian Arctic Council Chairship has organized meetings with the Permanent Participants, ensuring Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations some degree of dialogue and influence. This illustrates some willingness to find new paths. More paths should be opened to ensure a continued strong Arctic Council with the full and effective participation of Arctic Indigenous Peoples. At the same time, the Arctic Council should use the current disruption to ensure formalized, equitable and ethical participation of Arctic Indigenous Peoples at all levels of the Council’s work, building on the immense development of Indigenous Peoples’ rights regimes, recognitions of Indigenous Knowledge and inclusion of Indigenous worldviews in the formation of governance bodies that have continuously developed in the UN and other intergovernmental organizations through the past decades. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

The Authors