01/15/2012 04:30 EST | Updated 03/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada's Arctic: Government Urged To Prepare Now To Lead Agenda At Council Meeting Next Year

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Canada gets its chance to lead the Arctic world next year — and analysts say the country needs to start laying the groundwork for it now.

"Canada can play a leadership role in a way that not only advances the public interest in Canada but also Canada's standing in the world," said former Yukon premier Tony Penikett.

He is leading a major conference in Toronto this week on what the country should aim for when it begins its two-year term as head of the Arctic Council in April 2013.

The Arctic Council brings together northern aboriginals and the eight nations that ring the North Pole. Once largely confined to research and advice, the council is increasingly important and passed its first binding treaty last year on Arctic search and rescue. Further agreements, including one on developing energy resources, are under discussion.

"The Arctic Council is at a defining moment," said Sarah French, co-ordinator of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program, which is sponsoring the conference.

"We've had some good successes, but where are we going next?

"It's an extremely interesting time and that's why it's so vital that Canada seizes the opportunity to really use its chairmanship to show that Canada is a strong Arctic player."

One of Canada's first tasks will be to figure out how to work with non-Arctic actors asking for a window into the council's discussions.

Last spring, the council agreed to consider criteria for granting observer status to states and organizations such as China and the European Union. Canada opposed their inclusion, but other member states said letting in the rest of the world will ensure the council remains the place where Arctic issues are resolved.

"We feel that some of the important issues like climate change have implications for other countries too," said Norwegian Ambassador Else Bert Eikeland, who will speak at the conference. "If they have a strong interest in the Arctic, if they can contribute to discussion, and if they respect the sovereignty of the Arctic nations, we think they could be of service."

Penikett said observer countries could be asked to pay dues that would fund aboriginal groups who already participate.

Canada is also likely to come under pressure to try to broaden the council's mandate to include security issues — pressure Canada should resist, said University of Waterloo academic Whitney Lackenbauer.

He said military issues would spoil the collegial, consensual atmosphere that has made the council successful.

"You're going to end up having power politics instead, forcing everybody to do the song and dance associated with traditional diplomacy," he said. "As soon as you usher in military security, the whole dynamic around the table is going to change."

Franklyn Griffiths, a University of Toronto political scientist and conference speaker, said Canada needs to start working on its agenda now.

The government "surely understands that it's much better to hit the ground running rather than to show up a year from now and start asking people what to do."

Griffiths said there's no sign the Harper Conservatives have appointed a "sherpa" — someone in charge of setting goals and travelling to Arctic capitals to get other countries on board.

"You've got to pre-negotiate that stuff," he said.

"Who will piece together a Canadian vision or strategy for its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council? Who will put together the Canadian agenda?"

Griffiths points out that the U.S. takes over the council from Canada, so there's an opportunity for North America to set the agenda for four years.

"We should be working directly with the U.S."

Chairmanship of the council rotates through all member countries, and Canada's next turn marks the end of the first complete rotation since the council was founded in Ottawa in 1996. It's one sign the council is coming of age as a vital international forum, said Lackenbauer.

"All eyes have turned to the Arctic. People have identified this as being the regional organization. Given that the (council) was a Canadian initiative, this is something that we can latch on to."

By Bob Weber, The Canadian Press