Much has been said about the challenges and the opportunities facing northern communities at the start of the 21st century. At the heart of those discussions are the notions that northerners must be given greater autonomy to govern themselves as well as the ability to influence the decisions made by distant southern-based governments that affect them on a daily basis.
These ideas are not new or unique to the Circumpolar North. They relate to basic principles of governance and politics that have existed in many different contexts around the world for centuries: self-rule and shared rule.
Over the last several decades, the Circumpolar North has witnessed an explosion of new and innovative governance models. From Home Rule and Self-Rule in Greenland and devolution and self-government in northern Canada to the establishment of Sámi parliaments across Fennoscandia, northerners have demonstrated their commitment to developing governance institutions that ensure self-rule and shared rule. While these institutions conform to the values and ideals that are common in many different political systems, in certain respects they are unique and shaped by the experiences and knowledge that are particular to the Circumpolar North and its peoples.
In large part, the expansion of governance is a consequence of the political mobilization of indigenous peoples across the North. Initially, this mobilization was a response to encroaching resource development projects that threatened their land, environment and traditional ways of life. These projects often initiated a reaction at the local level in the form of protests and other types of political action, which emboldened indigenous leaders and their allies. Their demands for greater autonomy at the regional and local levels, and the recognition of indigenous rights and voices at the national and international levels would change the nature of governance and politics throughout the Arctic.
The emergence of complex multidimensional and multilevel governance structures occurred organically and incrementally. The experience of the circumpolar Inuit is a case in point. Like many indigenous communities and peoples in the Arctic and around the world, the Inuit face many challenges, most of which stem from the negative impacts of colonization by settler states and their agents. Since the 1970s, however, the Inuit have responded to these challenges by constructing a diverse and interconnected governance architecture that spans all levels from local to global. With limited resources and capacity, and often facing political inertia and even hostility from outside actors, the Inuit have become governance leaders and innovators. Their experiences are similar to those of the Sámi, another multistate indigenous people whose traditional territories are in northern Europe and Russia. Like the Inuit, the Sámi have deftly navigated the complicated reefs and shoals of politics, both domestic and international, to create a governance system that is comprehensive, flexible and representative of the values and principles that have informed their communities for many centuries.
The accomplishments of the Inuit and the Sámi have certainly put them in a better position to respond to the challenges that exist today, but what of the challenges that are on the horizon? We are already seeing the impacts of climate change and its effects on Arctic ecosystems, the relentless push to open the Arctic to further resource development and maritime transportation, and even developments outside the Arctic that may threaten to roll back the progress made thus far. These and other challenges will test the resolve and capacity of indigenous peoples and their governance institutions, and also of northerners in general.
In many respects the people of the North are well positioned to respond to such challenges. As a result of the hard work and ingenuity of previous generations, indigenous and non-indigenous northerners have more tools at their disposal to deal with the multitude of problems that may arise in the future. They also have valuable allies, including governments, non-governmental organizations and even academic institutions, who are committed to help them build the capacity they need to confront the new challenges.
The progress made by northerners presents a series of valuable case studies. They not only inform our overall understanding of governance in the Circumpolar North and elsewhere, but also contribute to the collective knowledge of the people living in this region. As academics who are engaged in research about the North and are mostly (though not exclusively) based at southern post-secondary institutions, we have a responsibility to think critically and comparatively about the changes that are taking place in the Circumpolar North. However, we must do so in partnership with northerners, and in ways that empower northern communities and peoples and focus on northern priorities. We all have knowledge and perspectives that can inform and inspire change. Let us work together to build a stronger and more sustainable North in the future.