Canada takes over leadership of Arctic Council next year, but is it ready?

Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent …Canada is being urged to get its ducks - or should that be ptarmigan - in a row as it prepares for its two-year gig as head of the Arctic Council next year.

"Canada can play a leadership role in a way that not only advances the public interest in Canada but also Canada's standing in the world," former Yukon premier Tony Penikett told The Canadian Press.

Penikett is chairing a conference in Toronto this week to help set out the Canadian agenda for its term in the rotating council chairmanship, which begins in April 2013.

The council brings together northern aboriginals and eight member countries that ring the North Pole. Its role was once largely confined to research and advice but as climate change has focused more attention on the Arctic, it's playing a more important part.

It has negotiated agreements on northern search and rescue and is developing rules to govern Arctic oil and gas development.

"The Arctic Council is at a defining moment," said Sarah French, co-ordinator of the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program, which is sponsoring this week's conference. "We've had some good successes, but where are we going next?

"It's an extremely interesting time and that's why it's so vital that Canada seizes the opportunity to really use its chairmanship to show that Canada is a strong Arctic player."

One of the big issues Canada will face is a wave of membership applications from countries outside the Arctic region, such as Brazil, China and India, whose interest is in its potential for resource exploitation and as a transportation corridor as global warming thins the sea ice.

"Why do they want to join?," asked EarthSky blogger Deborah Byrd.

"The Arctic is rich in resources, such as oil, gas, minerals, fresh water and fish, increasingly tourism, and - if the subarctic is included - forests. In times past, the Arctic was in mostly accessible to all but the small indigenous populations that lived there. It was an ice-covered ocean, a driver of Earth climate, a place for early 20th century explorers to make a name for themselves.

"But that old view of the Arctic has changed. The sizable Arctic resources have become more accessible in our time due to advances in technology, the economic opening up of Russia (whose northern border is in the Arctic), and last but not least climate change, which is expected to make the Arctic ice-free in the summertime sometime in this century."

The council granted observer status to states such as China and organizations such as the European Union last year, over Canada's objections.

Penikett said observer countries could be asked to pay dues that would fund participation by aboriginal groups.

Other issues likely to crop up during Canada's tenure as leader include whether to broaden the council's mandate to include security matters.

But political scientist Franklyn Griffiths, a speaker at this week's conference, suggested the Conservative government, which has said Arctic sovereignty is a priority, has been slow off the mark readying Canada to take the chair.

It has yet to appoint a "sherpa," an official responsible for setting goals and consulting with other member countries on goals during its mandate, he said.

"You've got to pre-negotiate that stuff," Griffiths told The Canadian Press. "Who will piece together a Canadian vision or strategy for its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council? Who will put together the Canadian agenda?"