05/15/2013 11:10 EDT | Updated 07/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Canada takes over newly broadened Arctic Council

KIRUNA, Sweden - Canada has officially taken over leadership of a newly broadened circumpolar world, beginning a two-year stint as head of an eight-member group of countries around the North Pole that is the primary international forum on northern issues.

"The time has come to embrace the Arctic and realize the tremendous potential and opportunities it has to offer for all of us," said federal Health Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq, who will serve as Arctic Council chairwoman during Canada's leadership.

"With the help of our Arctic Council partners, we will focus on creating economic development and sustainable northern communities."

Aglukkaq will be working with a larger group of countries interested in an increasingly accessible, resource-rich North. At its meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, on Wednesday, the council expanded the number of non-Arctic countries allowed to monitor discussions. China, South Korea, Japan, India and Italy have all been granted observer status after asking for it for years.

The European Union, which has been seeking the same status, was denied because of Canada's concerns about the effects EU legislation banning the import of seal products has on northern communities.

"We'll continue to work with the EU on ways to address that particular concern," said Aglukkaq.

The new observer countries have interests in the Arctic because of resource development and the opening of new, shorter shipping routes for them.

Requests for observer status from non-governmental organizations, which included energy industry groups as well as such environmental organizations as Greenpeace, were denied.

The council now has 11 observer nations. There remain nine inter-governmental observers and 11 non-governmental observers.

The council, as expected, also adopted an agreement on marine oil pollution preparedness — the second legally binding treaty negotiated by the council and a sign of its growing diplomatic importance.

Canada's agenda was also adopted. It promises to place northerners at the forefront of the council's discussions and to emphasize environmentally sound business and resource development.

Aglukkaq has previously described her proposed Arctic business forum as a combination trade show and conference where businesses can exchange ideas and best practices. On Wednesday, she suggested it might also address environmental regulation where companies operate in more than one Arctic country.

"The mitigation measures will differ. Why don't we collaborate more?"

A group of 42 Arctic aboriginal leaders and organizations — including two of the six permanent participants on the council — have expressed concern about that agenda. Earlier this week, they released a petition calling for tight restrictions on industrial development.

"I was a bit surprised and disappointed," Aglukkaq said, adding that Canadian aboriginals have considerable control over development.

The petition also surprised Duane Smith, head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, another permanent participant. He criticized the signatories for working with Greenpeace, a group widely disliked in the North for its onetime opposition to the seal hunt.

"They didn't consult with us," he said. "We do have similar concerns in regards to how development is conducted and we could have come up with a better approach to it instead of allowing Greenpeace to take the lead."

Smith welcomed the new observer countries, saying talks have begun with some of them on how they might support aboriginal organizations.

"(The conference) would be open to drafting up some arrangement where it's mutually beneficial for all parties to enhance our capacity and resources," he said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be financial."

The World Wildlife Fund, which has observer status, said the council now needs to focus on implementing some promises it has already made and on extending its deal on oil-spill preparation into prevention. The council also needs some way to hold members to account for those agreements, said Alexander Shestakov, the group's director of Arctic programs.

"It's really important now that Arctic states are really seriously paying attention to implementing those decisions."

The group praised agreements on oil spills and biodiversity and talks to strengthen shipping regulations. But it pointed out that a deal on black carbon, or soot, was blocked and there has been little progress on reducing the impacts of climate change.

"They have not completely ignored these issues, but have put them on the back burner for two years," said Shestakov.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton