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'Great honour for me:' Inuk minister Leona Aglukkaq hands over Arctic leadership

IQALUIT, Nunavut - The first aboriginal northerner to lead the group of eight nations that ring the North Pole has stepped down after her two-year term.Speaking of the pride she took in heading the Arctic Council, federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq handed the chairmanship off to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting in Nunavut's capital on Friday."It was a great honour for me, as an Inuk, to be the first Arctic indigenous person to serve as chair of the Arctic Council," Aglukkaq told the meeting in Iqaluit. Aglukkaq said the council, which co-ordinates international co-operation and research in the increasingly busy and contested region, must continue to include the concerns and expertise of northerners to inform its work."No one knows better than the people who live here how to survive and thrive in the Arctic environment — this land of intense cold, strong winds, and darkness we face much of the year," she said. "The people in the Arctic are the true Arctic experts and we must include their perspectives. We simply must."Aglukkaq took credit for putting the concerns of northerners at the top of the agenda during Canada's chairmanship.New studies have been commissioned. They include work on mental health as well as on black carbon, a significant contributor to the melting of sea ice."Addressing mental wellness is a personal priority of mine," Aglukkaq said.Canada also oversaw recommendations to use more traditional knowledge in Arctic Council research and the birth of the Arctic Economic Council, a self-selecting group of northern businesses who meet to discuss opportunities and best practices.Critics have said the scientific work would have gone ahead regardless. They also question the need for the economic forum.U.S. officials have said the focus for their two-year chairmanship will be on climate change, considered to be progressing faster in the Arctic than anywhere on the planet.This northern meeting, takes place under a slight diplomatic chill.Council members have viewed with some alarm recent Russian activities in the Arctic, which have included large military exercises involving tens of thousands of troops — far more than any other Arctic nation has or could mobilize in the North.Canadian Defence Minister Jason Kenney has called those actions as aggressive.As well, Aglukkaq had promised to take up Russia's activities in Ukraine with that country's representative.In his address to the council, Russian Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi denied his country is militarizing the North"Russia sees the Arctic as a territory for dialogue and co-operation," he said. "It's the only way we can achieve prosperity."There is no room for confrontation or fearmongering, particularly from forces from the outside. Russia is against politicizing the Arctic."Still, a recent survey of 10,000 people from all eight council countries suggested tension is at least perceived to be higher.About one-third of respondents in five of the eight countries believed the threat of armed conflict in the Arctic grew over the last year. The numbers ranged from 24 per cent in the continental United States to 35 per cent in Norway.Among Canadians, that percentage stood at 36 per cent in the south and 30 per cent among northerners.

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