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Nothern attitudes

Arctic Council “vaguely known, if at all”

On eve of the Arctic Council’s marquee event, a poll shows only a minority of people in Arctic countries are aware of the organisation’s existence
Hard work, not high politics

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As decision-makers from the eight Arctic states prepare to gather for the biennial Arctic Council ministerial meeting, the results of a poll released today show their constituents know little about the work of the body.

The results, according to the Gordon Foundation, a Canadian think-tank and one of the organisations behind the poll of 10,000 people in Arctic states, show the council “is only vaguely known, if at all, among citizens in the countries surveyed”.

The lack of information amongst the general public stands in stark contrast to the political and media discussions about details of the meeting, including intense scrutiny of the motivations behind a decision by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, not to attend the summit in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Friday.

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Awareness of the council ranged from 49% of the population at its highest (in Iceland) to just 9% (in non-Arctic Canada). However, Frank Graves, the president of EKOS Research Associates, the polling firm that conducted the survey, cautioned against reading too much into the public awareness levels. In many cases, the figures, he underscored, did not vary much from public awareness of mainstream domestic issues, such as national budgets.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged by these numbers,” Mr Graves said during a presentation of the findings today. “They show only modest interest, but it is growing, and quite dramatically so in critical areas like the US.”

American awareness of Arctic issues has been a major concern leading up to the Washington chairmanship, which it takes over from Ottawa on Friday. Much emphasis has been placed on whether Washington will be able to prevent tension between the West and Russia from spilling over into the council.

That, according to Sara French, the senior policy analyst with the Gordon Foundation, was unfortunate for two reasons. Most immediately, because it took the focus off of the collaborate efforts of the council, which has not been greatly affected by tensions between the West and Russia. Equally important, she said, was because it injected high politics into the region.

“Whenever we have a dialogue about the Arctic, we have to remember that this needs to be about the people who live there. The Arctic is a home for people. It’s not an empty space.”

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Ms French also pointed out that while the work of the Arctic Council remained generally unknown, that was not the same as a lack of interest in the Arctic in general.

“For Canadians, the Arctic holds enormous value, and a generally positive one, whether that is in terms of identity or economic opportunity. It’s a positive symbol for most Canadians.”

For groups living in the region, however, the significance of these discussions is more than symbolic. Most people, she said, were well versed in the arguments for and against economic development, and the potential impact it could have on their way of life.

While those issues remain unsettled in the North, they are rarely taken up in the South, according to Nils Andreassen, the head of the Institute of the North, a think tank and another of the report’s sponsors. He reckoned the poll would provide useful for policymakers seeking to involve people in these areas in discussions about Arctic issues.

“It is appropriate that we hold Arctic Council meetings in Alaska, or in the case of the Canadian chairmanship, that they were held in Nunavut, but this shows that there also needs to be a strategy for including the rest of these countries,” Mr Andreassen said.

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As part of its chairmanship Canada has focused on economic development in the North. One of its primary accomplishments was the establishment of the Arctic Economic Council, a business forum. Its establishment has been welcomed, but detractors are disappointed that participation is limited to Arctic countries.

Mr Andreassen stressed the importance initiatives like the AEC, but also noted that improving the economic lot of Arctic residents might require professional competencies that were best found outside the region.

Houston, he noted, is the centre of America’s petroleum industry, and New York is a centre for finance. Bringing their expertise to the region, he said, could go a long way towards bringing economic gains for the people of the region.

It would also help put the Arctic on the map for a greater number of people.