On September 19, 1996 I was sitting in a side room of the Canadian Parliament Building in Ottawa and watching, as the only international journalist present, the modest inauguration ceremony of the Arctic Council.
It was a very low-key event, and almost nobody outside the room paid any attention. Speeches were given, but they hit the headlines in only two papers within the Arctic: Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit, Canada and Kaleva in Oulu, Finland. The mood was far from sensing a historical moment; the global Arctic boom was nowhere yet to be seen.
Such was the start of the Arctic Council, but what was witnessed was not the beginning. By that time the key elements that still form the structure of the Arctic Council had already been established: indigenous peoples’ participation, and the working groups Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), and Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR), with the later addition of the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). Arctic ministerial meetings had already been going on since 1991. All that had happened under the umbrella of the “Rovaniemi Process” which then led to the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, AEPS.
Nobody reading Arctic papers can avoid learning about the legendary speech by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Murmansk in 1987, the speech that now marks the border between the Cold War and the new era in the Arctic. The speech, or at least its Finnish translation, was 24 pages long, and when he finally reached the end of it he proposed many openings in the Arctic, including an Arctic environmental protection plan. Around that time Finland was seeking new international openings. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the new Ministry of Environment were occupied by ministers from the same party, the Social Democrats. The Gorbachev speech was noted, its Finnish translation delivered to the tables in both ministries. The Arctic environment looked like a good opportunity to create an international Finnish initiative.
The level of ambition was high. In those days the process was often called ‘environmental CSCE’. The original CSCE (Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe) had been a European summit in Helsinki in 1975 that brought the leaders from the West and the East together, a still-remembered milestone in Finnish diplomacy.
Bringing the Arctic countries together was not an easy task, and the process was far from straightforward. Nevertheless, it happened. Already in 1989 the first negotiation round was held in Rovaniemi, Finland. In June 1991 the first ever Arctic ministerial meeting, that of ministers of environment, took place in the same location. Thus the hometown of Santa Claus got its name into the Arctic history.
Meanwhile, Canada had made its proposals to create a wider Arctic Council. After some silent years that idea moved forward and finally led to the inauguration event in Ottawa in 1996, and two years later the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was merged to the Arctic Council. However, the Council still operates in the spirit of the Rovaniemi Process: the focus is in the environment, indigenous peoples sit in the main table, and the work concentrates on the working groups established during the process.