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Arctic Council puts up “wall of silence” around Yellowknife meeting

Community groups complain over lack of information about high-level meeting of Arctic powers
Shut out of meetings, Greenpeace hopes its signs can do the talking (Photo: Greenpeace Canada)

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Activists seeking to engage Arctic Council diplomats as they gather in Yellowknife, Canada for high-level negotiations are “disappointed” by what they say is a lack of transparency about the meeting.

Representatives from the eight Arctic Council countries and the indigenous groups that participate in council business convened their three-day meeting of senior officials today.

The meeting is expected to focus on environmental and climate issues, but with no publically available schedule or agenda, what they actually talk about, according to Kiera-Dawn Kolson, a Greenpeace representative and member of the Dene Nation, is “anyone’s guess”.

“We’ve met a wall of silence and a lack of transparency on a variety of levels. For example, we’ve met with community and indigenous leaders, who said they hadn’t been informed about the meeting.”

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A statement on the council’s website indicated that the meeting would “take a comprehensive look at the on-going work” of the group, including progress on the eleven priority initiatives of the two-year Canadian chairmanship, which ends in 2015, but didn’t go into further detail.

Representatives from the Arctic Council’s permanent staff said the organisation would issue an official statement at the close of the meeting.

A request for comment from Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s minister for the Arctic Council, was turned down due to “scheduling constraints”. A spokesperson said the request had been passed on to the Canadian foreign ministry, but no response has been received.

Journalists familiar with the Arctic Council confirmed that a lack of information was “fairly normal” during meetings such as the current gathering, which is attended by high-level diplomats known as ‘senior Arctic officials’. Holding meetings behind closed doors, said one experienced correspondent, gave participants the chance to “work undisturbed”.

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Other critics described the Arctic Council as operating with a “buttoned-down” style, pointing out that the organisation had limited information about current events on its website or on social media outlets such as Twitter or Facebook.

Information levels were higher while Sweden held the two-year rotating council chairmanship, according to Kolson, who said she had been able to speak with decision-makers during meetings that country held.

Being held outside the Yellowknife meeting, she said, indicated that the council was no longer interested in hearing what other groups had to say.

“They are really only including who they want, and keeping out the people they want to keep out. At this level, they should be including community leaders so that they can pass on the necessary information.”

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She recognised that indigenous groups were present during Arctic Council meetings, but was “irked” they were only there as non-voting ‘permanent participants’.

“It’s nice that these groups get to speak, but the question is how much they are listened to. They have a voice but no vote. We think they should. It’s these people’s homes who will be affected by the decisions the council makes.”