The Arctic Council was almost stranded right before it was created due to a dispute over the role of the indigenous peoples, Mary Simon reveals twenty years later.
Mary Simon recalls, “We had been working hard for two years to reach an agreement and to establish the Arctic Council, but when the senior officials were brought in to finish off the work, some central representatives wanted to give the indigenous peoples a diminished role.” For her this was a no-go situation. “I am very diplomatic, but in this situation the Canadian delegation was very clear: if the indigenous peoples became only observers as suggested by the USA – and not permanent participants as agreed – Canada would walk out of the negotiations. We were ready to leave,” the former Canadian diplomat explains twenty years later.
In 1994, the now 68-year-old Canadian Inuk was appointed by the Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien to be the first Canadian Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs. For years she had been representing both Canadian and international Inuit organizations in indigenous peoples’ issues, including the Arctic Council predecessor, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). As the Canadian Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs she was asked to step out of the Inuit role and work on creating a council for the eight Arctic nations. “We needed something more than the AEPS, something more than the environment focus,” Simon says.
The idea of an Arctic Council was not new, but bringing the idea to life was still difficult. Simon traveled around the circumpolar Arctic to promote the new initiative, and she was met by what she describes as resistance and a ‘wait and see’ attitude. Many countries were happy with the AEPS as it was.
When Simon started to gather enough support for a new council, she knew that the standing for indigenous peoples in the AEPS was weak. As president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), she had been invited to an AEPS meeting to speak about the role of the indigenous people. “I soon realized that I was not a participant in this meeting – I was more of an observer that was invited to give a talk. But to me it was not right that the AEPS should discuss issues affecting the indigenous communities and just treat us as observers. I did not agree and made a big fuss about it,” Simon recalls – and laughs when telling about it.
During the meeting with the AEPS, Mary Simon eventually got it her way and was able to sit down at the table as an equal partner during the rest of the meeting. She describes this as the beginning of a new policy focus making indigenous peoples equal partners in processes addressing issues important to indigenous peoples in the Arctic. “When international forums talk about sustainability in the Arctic, they are dealing with the core issue for indigenous communities. To me it is obvious that we need to be at the table as participants,” Simon says.
The negotiations that lead to the Ottawa Declaration and the creation of the Arctic Council lasted for two years. In the beginning, junior level officials took part in the negotiations, but when the work got closer to the final wording, some of the more senior level officials from different countries came to the forefront. “And that was when some serious problems occurred. We had negotiated a good position for what is known today as the permanent participants (PPs). But the senior officials wanted to make changes on both the role and the term ‘permanent participants’ before the ministers got involved,” Simon explains.
Mary Simon was determined to fight for the PPs’ position, and the negotiations ended up with all-night sessions discussing the PPs’ role. “We just could not agree on creating a council without the PPs at the table, and we were several players explaining why,” Simon remembers. Eventually one of the Canadian officials made it crystal clear. If the PPs’ role were diminished, Canada would walk out of the negotiations. This changed the meeting, but even two years after the Ottawa Declaration formally established the Arctic Council, there were still discussions on the PPs’ role and term. “In 1998 we discussed the term ‘indigenous people’ versus ‘indigenous peoples’.”
The Canadian chaired the Arctic Council the first two years. “I guess the perception of the public was that we really weren’t doing much during those years. But we worked 24/7 finishing off all of the work that we just postponed to be able to close the initial negotiations,” Simon says. She left the Arctic Council platform in 2003, but has continued to follow the Council’s work from the outside. Today she sees a real need for better funding for the PPs, and she questions the role of the PPs in the newly created Arctic Economic Council. “We have to be really careful that new forums and other organizations do not weaken the long fought role for the PPs in the Arctic Council,” Simon says.