Clinton's Arctic comments cheer Inuit

Inuit groups are declaring victory and Arctic experts are warning that Canada's approach to the North will have to change after remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"I can only express my support for her comments and her views," said Duane Smith, head of the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Whitney Lackenbauer, a University of Waterloo historian and Arctic expert, agreed.

"The clear message from Hillary Clinton is, 'You need to recognize that this Arctic is not just the private sea of the five coastal states.'"

On Monday, Canada was host to a meeting of the United States, Norway, Russia and Denmark to discuss Arctic issues that included boundary disputes and search-and-rescue capabilities.

However, Iceland, Finland and Sweden were not invited — even though they are members of the Arctic Council, a long-standing group that Canada helped create specifically for such issues. Aboriginal groups who also have a place at the Arctic Council were not invited either.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said he thought all the participants made a clear distinction about the role of the Arctic Council and the responsibilities of Arctic coastal states. He said the meeting was not meant to undermine the council.

But all three non-invitees publicly complained about the snub, as did the Inuit. And Clinton backed them up.

"Significant international discussions on Arctic issues should include those who have legitimate interests in the region," she said Monday.

'Effectively dead'

The so-called Arctic Five have met once before, in Greenland. But Clinton's blunt statement probably means the end of any get-togethers, said Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies.

"I think that's effectively dead," Huebert said. "I can't see any other country running forward to make it work."

"This has thrown that particular dimension of (the Canadian government's) policy into an impossible position," said Michael Byers, a law professor from the University of British Columbia. "From now on, they have to include the other Arctic Council members and they also have to make sure there is indigenous representation."

Smith said Clinton's remarks mean others are watching to see if Canada's actions match its words.

"Others are taking into account how Canada is dealing with its Arctic and how it addresses the involvement of its local indigenous inhabitants," he said. "When they have any future meetings like this, I would hope our foreign affairs minister would involve local northern inhabitants."

South of the border, University of Vermont law professor Betsy Baker interpreted Clinton's remarks less harshly.

"It was more of a friendly reminder of the need to support the Arctic Council," Baker said.

She added that what Clinton said may have been less important than the fact she talked about the Arctic at all — a sign of the growing importance of the region to the U.S.

"To my knowledge, this is the first time she's made any comprehensive statements about the Arctic," said Baker, who has written extensively on Arctic law.

Clinton offers support

Canada now has an opening to increase American support for the council, suggested Huebert.

He said the U.S. has been careful to limit the council's mandate and budget. The council can only advise member states and isn't even allowed to discuss security, although that has become one of the biggest concerns in the Arctic.

"If Canada is smart, they'll take this as an excuse to strengthen the Arctic Council," Huebert said.

But at the very least, Arctic aboriginals have now been firmly placed on the diplomatic map, said Byers.

"Clinton is going to bat for indigenous people," he said. "This will be celebrated by indigenous people across the North."