Commemorating the Unprecedented; Canada, the Arctic Council, and the History of the Present

The Arctic Council (dark blue represents members, light blue shows observers).

By Andrew Stuhl

Today marks an important turning point in Canadian history. Or does it?

This morning Canada assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Formed in 1996, the Council promotes cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states and with the region’s indigenous communities. It is a high-level governmental forum that, while limited in its decision-making capacity, has shaped international policies regarding environmental protection and sustainable development in the far north, and elsewhere. For a primer on the Council’s composition, responsibilities, and organization, click here.

In the lead-up to today’s transition, journalists, political scientists—and even a few historians—have commented on what it means for the nation to hold this position. Analyses have varied in their foci and conclusions, but all attempt to characterize the present as a historical crossroads. For the geopolitically-minded, like Joel Plouffe, a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, the chairmanship presents an opportunity for Canada to chart a path of investment in the north and assert itself as a global leader. His article in the National Post, “North America’s Neglected North,” advocates the creation of North American research and region-building institutions on the grounds that the U.S. and Canada have lagged behind Europe in bringing the full weight of its intellectual resources to northern affairs.  It finds an echo in a recent report by the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program at the University of Toronto, which cites sparse northern infrastructure as a reason for Canada to use the chairmanship to push forward plans for ports, search and rescue stations, and icebreaker vessels. While responsive to the modern geopolitical currents intersecting in the Arctic, these interventions lean heavily on the notions of the Forgotten North and the the North-as-Frontier to suggest that Canada can both redeem and make history by claiming the Arctic, making it known through science, and defending national claims there.

Others have deployed a similar understanding of the past to paint the environmental and economic pictures of the circumpolar basin, and thus the importance of Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The region is widely regarded as a “canary in the coal mine” for climate change, with melting sea ice and stranded polar bears sending potent messages of how global warming will reshape landscapes and livelihoods. In a policy memo from April 2012, Terry Fenge, the strategic council to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in the late 1990s and early 2000s, suggested that Canada use its chairmanship to make bold statements regarding environmental action. “Using the Council to engage China, the European Union, and others responsible for these emissions,” Fenge argued, will “reinforce the concept of the Arctic-as-global-barometer and promote negotiation and implementation of global agreements needed to protect the Arctic environment and the peoples who live in the region.”

Fenge’s gesture to Chinese interests in the far north are oft repeated in articles and other media regarding the Arctic Council’s future agenda. Authors point to China’s growing foothold in the region as a sign that the Arctic is emerging as a lynchpin in the global economy.  As the ice recedes, it has revealed previously inaccessible stores of minerals, oil, and natural gas as well as possible commercial shipping lanes. China has already sent vessels on a northern sea route that would shave travel times to northern Europe by two weeks. It has also courted favor with Iceland, Greenland, and Norway, signing free trade agreements and investing in local economies in order to make a bid for a seat at the table as an “observer” in the Arctic Council. Partly because the top of the world seems an altogether different place than the last time Canada last led the Arctic Council, and partly because the nation will direct the course of Arctic governance and development during a period of rapid environmental change and heightened economic investment, observers are referring to Canada’s chairmanship as presiding over a moment or opportunity that is unprecedented.

For historians, such characterizations should elicit both caution and excitement. We should be cautious because if an episode is understood to have no precedent, this means the potential uses of history have been greatly reduced. Usually, as in the case with Plouffe and the Munk-Gordon Program, history is invoked to give punch to a backhanded compliment: Canada is in the position today to make strides in Arctic politics because it has for so long been indifferent to northern affairs. Northern historians have been quick to respond to gestures like this, pointing out that they contort the past to give legitimacy to the plans one hopes will come to fruition. The trope of neglect is peppered throughout the twentieth century, in the boosterism of showmen like Vilhjalmur Stefansson or the nationalist bombast of mid-century bureaucrats.

Then again, the deployment of “unprecedented” to set the present apart from the past might be the best indication that historical scholarship has a role to play in modern decision-making. What better term exists to capture the material changes in northern physical and social worlds that are progressing so rapidly that scientists, residents, and government officials can hardly measure them, let alone find historical counterparts by which to situate them? In the Arctic, where human and natural communities have been so transformed in so little time, environmental historians find an arena where their work can intervene in the politics of defining ecological baselines and the capacity for human resilience.  Similarly, historian Kenneth Coates has been active in the recent media blitz around the Arctic Council, using the forum to demonstrate how a break from historical patterns might strengthen Canada’s relationship with northern aboriginals. In interviews and publications, Coates has argued that it is time to dissolve the dichotomy that what is good for Canada’s aboriginal people is not good for country as a whole. Rather, Canada’s leadership in the Arctic Council presents possibilities for cooperation and the responsible stewardship of northern natural resources in ways that allow aboriginals to enter Canada on their own terms. Speaking with Tim Querengesser of Alberta Venture, Coates says,

“I think we’re at that point where if we can get governments, the business community and the general public to realize that this is something that works to everybody’s benefit – that healthy, culturally successful Aboriginal communities help everybody – we’ll change the paradigm.”

Ironically, then, recent coverage of the Arctic Council both constrains and expands the space for active history.

Given this irony, there is one final lesson to draw from current events concerning the Arctic Council. That is, we historians should be reminded of the power of stories. Our decisions regarding when to start and end our narratives in many ways determine how our scholarship can be brought to bear on the present. Is May 15, 2013 the beginning or the end of an era for Canada, or both? Is today the point at which the Arctic begins to figure in Canadian history, or the point at which Canada figures into Arctic history? Or are there still other histories that Canada and the Arctic find themselves in because of the changes unfolding now in the far north? As William Cronon argued in his endlessly helpful 1992 article, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” the historian’s sharpest tool is that which decides when a story opens and when it closes, because it allows some circumstances to count as history and others to be left on the cutting room floor. Thus, the designation of any one moment in time as “unprecedented” is an indication of how our understanding of the past is impinging on the future. It is one of the many ways that we—the collective we—write history everyday through our interpretation of the present and the meaning we impose upon it.

So is today a turning point? Time will tell, but so can we. We read recently about the need for “speedy history” on northern themes. For those interested in live-action historical work, keep up with the news and shape the conversation about the Arctic Council on Twitter, by using the keyword #Arctic.


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