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Discovering the Arctic Through its People

Discovering the Arctic Through its People

June 22, 2016

By Jean-François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan

Where is that Arctic—the images of which capture and fascinate your imagination in turn? Is it cold temperatures, Northern Lights, the midnight sun, icebergs, majestic animals, or resilient people?

For many, the answer that first comes to mind is simply: “It’s very far away!”

It is no accident that the image of a grandiose but distant and isolated Arctic has found its way into the branding and marketing strategies of so many companies, but, locating the precise point at which innocent fascination becomes misappropriation and is historically and culturally fraught, and we must all remember to “tread lightly” in our use or misuse of cultural imagery.

In our work at Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities, we have come to realize that a single, clearly defined Arctic does not exist, and it is too large, too diverse, and too elusive to be an object of expertise. We do not consider ourselves to be Arctic experts, and would discourage anyone from pretending otherwise. In reality there are multiple Arctics—Arctics with diverse geographies, peoples, resources, industries, and needs. This diversity is part of why working with a truly inclusive range of Arctic scenarios is so difficult and so important.

The word Arctic comes from the Greek arktos, which means “near the bear.” The referent in this case is not the black or polar bear, but the Great Bear constellation, Ursa Major. Should we rely on this interstellar bear to find the Arctic?

Discovering the Arctic Through its People

Ursa major, Leo minor.

The Arctic is most commonly referred to as the northernmost part of our planet. It is a region that covers over 5.6 million square miles, includes disparate geological features, and is inhabited by peoples from a multitude of different cultures. Its sheer diversity makes it impossible to pretend to have a general expertise of the Arctic—despite the perceived political advantages of “One Arctic” rhetoric.

The cold temperature is often looked to as a common trait across the Arctic, but even this brings with it complexity. Setting climate change deliberations aside, cold is relative. Some have defined the Arctic as a place where the thermometer never goes over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But even Murmansk—a city in the extreme northwest region of Russia—has experienced record highs of 91.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers have also defined the Arctic as a territory that is above the tree line. However, in northern Quebec, where we live, there are trees in both the Kuujjuaq and Kuujjuaraapik villages in the Nunavik region, and there is little doubt that the majority of Inuit who live in Nunavik would definitely consider their homeland to be part of the Arctic.

So Where Is the Arctic?

The truth is the precise boundaries of the Arctic are undetermined and we do not believe that its exact frontiers are important. It is widely accepted that the Arctic is in the northern territories of the eight Arctic states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. However, limiting the definition of the Arctic to its political and cartographical “possession” will not do it justice.

A single, clearly defined Arctic does not exist. There are multiple Arctics, which is part of why working with a truly inclusive range of Arctic scenarios is so difficult and so important.

Why it Is All About the People

It is surprising to note that for most people, the Arctic is a white desert, a wild territory exempt of any human intervention, as if it were hidden or lost. The literary trope of a pristine northern wilderness, upon which we are free to project our deepest desires, has fueled sublime fantasy and monstrous creatures, but nothing is more dangerous than the myth that the Arctic is an empty untapped zone ripe for exploitation.

The Arctic is indeed inhabited—not very densely, but inhabited nonetheless. Arctic Indigenous peoples include, for example, the Buryat, Chukchi, Evenks, Inupiat, Khanty, Koryaks, Nenets, Sami, Yukaghir, and Yupik.

The Inuit people of Canada primarily live in Nunavik and Nunavut. Originally from Asia, they have populated North America for approximately 10,000 years. Their survival is linked to fishing and hunting and these activities are still practiced in Inuit villages.

However, Inuit are not only fishers and hunters. They are public administrators, businesspeople, professionals, and artists. They collectively own and work for a large corporate airline and maritime organizations. They not only have Internet access, but are also at the vanguard of various technologies, including cellular and geomatics, in addition to operating highly successful fashion design companies.

There are also many people who were not born in the region, but who have made the Arctic their home. They are proud to belong to the region and often call themselves Northerners. Climate, lifestyle, and remoteness have transformed these Northerners’ worldview.

The Arctic is a place where interpersonal, familial, and business relations all need to be approached with a great deal of humility and respect for the people who live there. In the end, it is the people who define the Arctic. Kesserwan Arteau’s legal and consultancy practice is centered on respect for those people and their differences, their reality, their vision, their aspiration to control their economies, and their desire to choose their governance and commercial systems while preserving traditions and ancestral rights.

For many who do not live in the Arctic, it may seem important to first define the territory in order to be able to study and understand it. For the people who live in the north, however, territories and their identities are interlinked. They understand that the Arctic lives in them—not near the Great Bear.

At Kesserwan Arteau we are not northern experts, but instead are working to understand the people who live in the region and who strive, day after day, to preserve and protect this part of the globe while improving their living conditions.

Our Arctic does not exist on a map. Territorial borders do not divide it, and there is no international competition over its ownership. Rather, our Arctic exists in the hearts of those who inhabit, shape, define, and continually transform it. The Arctic where we work is infinite, excessive, and full of possibilities.



Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq. He has worn many different hats throughout his career, including lawyer, executive advisor, vice president of a major governmental organization, radio host, author, and dad.

Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years, and has juggled the titles of lawyer, professor, and political and strategic advisor.

The World Policy Institute would like to acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s role in support of knowledge mobilization from the One Arctic Symposium.

[Photos courtesy of Lkovac, Cartography Associates (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.