Although the Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings are conducted at the highest level of governance and are closed to the public, they attract attention from the media and provide an impetus to discuss key issues with stakeholders at the local level. While policymaking is an important step in addressing evolving challenges in the Arctic, implementing those policies in northern communities is critical for effecting meaningful change. By including local leaders in the decision-making process at the national and international level from the very beginning of discussions, the Arctic Council and other international organizations might be able address potential roadblocks that high-level representatives would not otherwise foresee when drafting new policies. This process could also help ensure that policies are correctly interpreted and understood across diverse Arctic communities.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) advocated for this bottom-up approach just hours after the United States officially passed the Arctic Council Chairmanship to Finland. Murkowski made a surprise appearance at a historic meeting of Arctic mayors in Fairbanks and observed as eleven mayors from Alaska, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as the President of the Tribal Government in Barrow, worked together to finalize and sign a resolution addressing economic diversification, infrastructure, climate change, and scientific research in the Arctic region.
A positive takeaway of the Fairbanks Ministerial Meeting for Senator Murkowski was that the voices of Permanent Participants are being heard more clearly within the Arctic Council, but she believes that another important step will be learning from what mayors in the circumpolar north are doing at the local level. Murkowski expressed concern that far too often policymaking happens only at the very highest level, and there is a gap between how policies are translated and understood and then actually implemented on the ground. If policies were created with more input from the local level, they would be more reflective of the world at large and more likely to actually work.
At the end of her speech, Murkowski conveyed her hope that there would be a seat at the table for Arctic mayors at the next Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Finland in 2019 so that local leaders could provide input. Perhaps focusing on local leadership might be a way to mitigate any potential backpedaling on important issues that could happen over the course of the next four years under the Trump administration.
Summary of the Mayors’ Meeting
Christin Kristoffersen, a former mayor of Longyearbyen, facilitated the Arctic Mayors’ Roundtable and greeted Senator Murkowski when she arrived. Kristoffersen created a casual atmosphere from the outset of the meeting by encouraging the mayors to all refer to one another by their first names, which she said is the “Arctic way.” Each mayor gave a brief opening statement with his or her thoughts on the importance of working collectively to address common challenges. As Mayor Karl Kassel of the Fairbanks North Star Borough noted, the mayors’ individual communities are small but together their voices can be loud. Several mayors expressed concerns about infrastructure and telecommunications. Others emphasized opportunities surrounding tourism, which seemed to be more attainable for some communities represented around the table than others given varying levels of accessibility to their regions. Mayor Richard Beneville of Nome aptly stated, “If people can get there, they will go.” Although each mayor represents a group of people facing distinct challenges and opportunities, their introductory remarks wove together common themes that they continued to address as a group throughout the session.
After going around the table for introductions, the mayors broke into smaller groups to provide feedback on specific areas of the draft resolution, then they reconvened at the end of the session to negotiate which changes should be incorporated into the final document. It was interesting to watch this process unfold, and one point of contention that elicited a surprising amount of debate was the use of the term “northerners.” Apparently this term became mainstream during the Canadian Chairmanship but some of the Scandinavian mayors took issue with it because the term has a different connotation in their countries, so they preferred using “peoples of the north.” There was also some debate on whether to refer to the group of mayors as “Northern mayors” or “Arctic-minded mayors.” There was concern that “Arctic-minded mayors” would be too broad, potentially expanding to communities from countries like those participating as Observers in Arctic Council meetings. The group settled on “Arctic mayors” instead.
Mayor Madeleine Redfern of Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory in Canada, was a force at the table while negotiating changes to the draft declaration. Mayor Redfern was one of the first students to graduate from the Akitsiraq Law School in Iqaluit, which was the first school of its kind in the Arctic, integrating Inuit traditional law into an otherwise standard Canadian legal curriculum. Mayor Redfern brought an Inuit perspective to the conversation and ensured that the reality of life in her communities was reflected in the finalized document. Like Murkowski, Redfern expressed the need for local representation at meetings with regional and national governments. In order for this representation to be effective, Redfern noted that capacity must be built in the area of governance so that communities are able to lobby for resources more effectively. Furthermore, communities need to be collectively smart in order to address common issues facing people living in the Arctic.
The Mayors’ Meeting in Fairbanks was an important step in connecting local leaders from across the Arctic region, and perhaps the event will mobilize the group to lobby for participation in Arctic Council meetings. Hopefully the group will be able to reconvene at the next ministerial meeting, or elsewhere, to report back on any progress made in achieving the declaration’s objectives. The full text of the Mayoral Declaration is available here.
This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.