Canada and the United States have a chance to set the Arctic agenda for the next four years — if they decide to take it, says a report from two prominent foreign affairs think-tanks.
"While their interests are not identical, there is a potential for having quite a long list of shared initiatives," said Tony Penikett, former Yukon premier and co-author of a study released Tuesday by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation and the Munk School of Global Affairs.
The report was commissioned as Canada and the U.S. line up to assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an eight-member group of circumpolar states that is growing in importance in northern governance.
Canada begins a two-year term as council chairman next April. The U.S. follows Canada, so the two countries will have a chance to focus the council's attention on North American issues for four years running.
Penikett pointed out that several aboriginal groups that have permanent observer status on the council live in both countries. Those groups need consistent funding to maintain their presence at the table — something that could be provided by non-Arctic countries that wish to be observers at the Arctic Council.
"We could certainly co-operate on permanent participant funding," Penikett said.
Canada and the U.S. could work together on research and regulation of emerging fisheries in the Arctic, something recently identified as a growing issue at an international meeting of Arctic scientists in Montreal.
The council is already beginning to outline international regulations for energy development in Arctic waters, as both Canada and the U.S. prepare to resume offshore drilling.
As well, details need to be worked out on the council's treaty on Arctic search and rescue.
"Implementation of that will be a huge challenge and there's lots of potential for co-operation between Canada and the U.S. on that."
Canada may need to raise the level of its diplomatic efforts in the Arctic, said Penikett.
"One of the things that we have recommended is the appointment of an Arctic ambassador. We think having a high-level person leading these kinds of discussions would be a plus."
Sarah French, co-ordinator of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program, noted that a half-dozen countries sent ambassador-level delegations to the conference that produced the report.
"The Arctic Council is starting to gather the attention of the world," she said.
The federal government currently entrusts Canada's Arctic file to a senior bureaucrat.
Penikett said the only indications Ottawa has given on its plans for its tenure at the council's helm have been for "a modest kind of agenda."
But Canada should aim for something more ambitious given the sweeping changes affecting the region and the council's growing strength, Penikett suggested.
"This a proposal for a slightly more assertive agenda."