SDWG is the Human Voice of the Arctic Council: Sarah Cox

By Justin Barnes

Sarah Cox and Justin Barnes

In this ‘Polar Matters’ interview, Sarah Cox, Director of the Circumpolar Affairs Directorate, Department of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs Canada, and Canadian Head of Delegation to the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) at the Arctic Council, speaks to Justin Barnes, Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, about sustainable development in Canada’s Arctic, the role and work of the SDWG at the Arctic Council, and the future of the working group. 

What issues do you consider to be the most pressing for Canadian communities in the Arctic today?

That would be based on the last 10 years of my work, but I am a southerner, so I don’t want to presume anything. I think there are several from my own perspective in terms of some of the work that I do at the Arctic Council; suicide and mental wellness is a critical priority. Not an easy one to tackle, it will probably take generations to work through what best suits Northerners. Renewable energy is also a big issue in the North. My understanding of Canada’s infrastructure is that there is a heavy reliance on diesel and the infrastructure is failing or ageing across the North, so it’s not a bad time to look at that. I know there are things that are already happening, but to look at renewable energies as an alternative source. It’s a little bit tricky in the North. You have to choose your strategy. In Nunavut, for example, it obviously can’t be biomass; there’s no wood above the tree-line. Wind is not always easy with permafrost but is the permafrost melting or softening? This might provide an opportunity. There are obviously much bigger issues with the melt of permafrost but potentially an opportunity. So renewable energy, mental wellness for sure, housing, food security, investments in infrastructure, solid waste management and the list goes on. I think there are several challenging issues in the North.

What does sustainable development in Canada’s Arctic mean to you?

That’s a big question. For me, it means: how do you maintain lifestyles, traditional and contemporary, that are sustainable in the North, with a number of challenges in terms of the cost of food, challenges of getting local food, and an understanding that traditional food, which is so coveted in the South that it’s more profitable to send it South, means that Northerners have less access to that healthy, local food. In other words, there’s a food insecurity issue. Again, I would mention renewable energy and that so many of the issues are tied into climate change, including melting sea ice. That is not my bailiwick at all, but how do you protect a way of life in the Arctic that is thousands of years old? We have to obviously keep in mind contemporary influences that are also in the North. I’m not talking about just local hunting but a sustainable and healthy lifestyle in the North based on what Northerners want.

What role does the Sustainable Developing Working Group play in the Arctic Council?

The most important role obviously [laughter]. I would argue that the SDWG is the human voice of the Arctic Council. It’s all about the human experience. I’m not sure that every other working group would agree with that. Obviously everything that we [the working groups] do is tied into the human experience, but it’s much more explicit with the SDWG. It is the human dimension of the Arctic Council so for me it’s all about people and much more social science, not natural science. It’s indigenous knowledge, traditional knowledge, local knowledge, it’s a place to ground our work with the permanent participants who sit at the table and look at how we can improve the lives of Circumpolar Northerners through that working group. You can tell that I’m not biased at all about the SDWG. We have such a diverse array of themes and projects in the SDWG, which, incidentally, is laid out in our Strategic Framework. It ranges from mental wellness, to food, renewable energy, resilience, environmental impact assessments, one health approach and several others. It is a very dynamic working group, and I think we all care deeply about the work we do at that table and with our partners.

People have described the Arctic Council as a policy shaping forum. What policies have the SDWG contributed to shaping?

That’s a tricky question because I would probably say no formal policies per se but I think we have some really great work in terms of, for example, renewable energy, with the various projects we do. With one of our projects, ARENA, we’ve got 17 new renewable energy literate professionals in northern communities, predominantly Indigenous young professionals, where they may not have been before. We have launched the Renewable Energy Tool Kit led by the Gwich’in Council which walks community folks through all the steps required to install renewable energy systems in their communities. Training people, I think, is pretty fantastic in terms of some of our outcomes. We have some of this experience with mental wellness as well. Mental wellness has always been, at least for six years, an important focus of the SDWG. But in this last year and a half, we’ve actually done these really cool digital storytelling sessions with youth, and we have a very powerful youth-made-videos library now. The videos are meant to be tools that (a) empower youth to talk about why living is so important and (b) something that we can circulate to as many Northerners across the circumpolar Arctic as possible to give some hope and inspiration, particularly to youth. It is also an important learning experience for youth in the south, to get a glimpse of northern youth voices through video. I don’t think I could say that we have formal policy impacts that are a result of the work at the SDWG, but I think they’re much more informal impacts and likely not very well known. Because it’s a consensus organisation and not built on a legal-based or policy-based foundation, we don’t really develop policy per se at the SDWG.

You already mentioned a couple of them, but what are some of the programs Canada is supporting at the SDWG?

I mentioned ARENA, which is a training program to get northern community members renewable energy literate, and that’s ongoing. Mental wellness obviously gets huge support from Canada and almost every other circumpolar member state and Permanent Participant. We also have a very “glamorous” project we’re doing on solid waste that we are supporting here in Canada because it’s a pretty critical issue in the North and Circumpolar North as well, because permafrost makes it so much more difficult to find solutions for solid waste.

The other one I would say that is worth mentioning is the Arctic as a food-producing region. Looking at barriers to keeping traditional local food in the Arctic rather than it being shipped out, exported out, particularly given the food insecurity issues and also the challenges and barriers across land claim jurisdictions, which include Nunavut, GNWT, through the Inuvialuit, Nunatsiavut in Labrador, Newfoundland and Nunavik in Quebec. What are the barriers to exchanging food across those regions?

I think those are the larger priority projects, which is a personal view, and then things like teacher education or teacher diversity in education so the teachers are really comfortable and knowledgeable with Indigenous knowledge so that if they’re teaching in the North, they’re not going in with a southern perspective and applying that southern perspective. Learning more about local culture.

We have completed an extensive Finnish-led project on environmental impact assessment. This one also garnered a great deal of interest and engagement from member states and almost all of the Permanent Participants. It included many workshops across the Circumpolar North, with several different departments and impact assessment review boards and industry here in Canada heavily engaged, and it has resulted in a really wonderful multi-jurisdictional report with best practice recommendations.

Those are just a few of the projects we are working on at the SDWG. In Canada, we are involved in 11-13 projects at any given time, and they all have terrific value.

What sets the Arctic Council apart from other international forums or organisations?

I would say the Permanent Participant organisations for sure set it apart. There are six permanent participants. That’s indigenous organisations or governments who sit at the table, and I’m not actually aware of any other organisation or forum that does that. What it means to me is that the work is grounded with Indigenous and Northerners’ perspectives and not just the people from the member states who sit around that table. I think the Permanent Participants have a bigger responsibility at that table to make sure we’re doing things that are meaningful for Indigenous people in the Arctic.

Do you work closely with the permanent participant organisations?

We do in Canada. There are three organisations here: Gwich’in [Council International], [Arctic] Athabaskan [Council] and Inuit Circumpolar Council, and I would say 95 per cent of the projects that Canada supports at the SDWG table are supported by the Permanent Participant organisations here in Canada. If they’re not, then we have to think pretty hard about why we would support something that is of no interest to Permanent Participants. We work very closely with them and try to fund some of their participation in various projects so they have the capacity to really engage fully. Funding’s a bit of a challenge, but I would say that Permanent Participants could be engaged more deeply if they had better financial support. This is one of the biggest challenges I would say, so, for example, I am Head of Delegation for the Sustainable Development Working Group, another Canadian is head of delegation for AMAP, for PAME, for the other working groups. Quite often with the Permanent Participants, they have heads of delegation at all of the tables, all of the six working groups as well as task forces so the demands are extremely high. This is not sustainable, and that’s really because of insufficient funding which can lead to insufficient capacity. They just do not have enough resources for Permanent Participants to really meaningfully engage in all the areas that they want to engage, so they have to choose and prioritise where they can be engaged. I think this is an ongoing challenge. I would say that we haven’t figured that one out yet.

Do you see the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals playing a role in shaping policy in the Arctic? And if so, which areas do you believe are the most relevant?

I would say yes, definitely. The other thing I would say though is that so much work has been going on in the Arctic that is totally SDGs-related, and that was happening before the SDGs [Agenda] 2030. So I think it’s an interesting way to frame it now. We have the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030, so we have themes and we can organise some of the work and the way we do things around these themes but I don’t think it’s new for the SDWG, nor for the Arctic Council. I think it’s what many countries have been doing anyway. I think the trickier part is possible barriers for some countries who may not be able to get behind the SDGs. That’s going to be quite interesting but in terms of areas that are the most relevant, there are so many. We did some analysis here on the SDGs, and I think we managed to scale it back to about 22 targets that were particularly relevant for the SDWG. I think that totally depends on what part of the Arctic you are from: industry, government, mining, not-for-profit, environmental. The relevance of each thematic area will be totally different depending on where you work. But I think it’s a great framework to work from, and it serves to affirm much of what we do at the SDWG.

We’ve reached the end of the Finnish chairmanship. What are some of the priorities you’ve been focusing on in the SDWG during this chairmanship?

Every chairmanship will bring up a new set of priorities. For the Finns it has been, for example in SDWG, teacher education, connectivity, meteorology, and several others. But then, of course, we also have lots of projects that carry on from the previous chairmanship. There’s mental wellness under the Canadian chairmanship, US chairmanship, Finnish chairmanship, and it will carry on under the Icelandic chairmanship. Nonetheless, our focus over the last nearly 2 years has been on the Finnish priorities set out under their chairmanship which is easy to find online as well.

You have been involved with the SDWG through three chairmanships. What are some of the things you’ve learned and what areas do you see the SDWG making most progress in the future?

I’ve learned masses in terms of the Circumpolar North. Even my own skill set in terms of diplomacy and negotiation, which is such an integral part of this function and so much fun at that table. I’m lucky because I think it’s a great bunch of people at the SDWG. I love working with all the heads of delegation and permanent participants but how to assert influence and motivate and leverage positions I have found really fascinating. I don’t know if I can ever walk away from this kind of job. I love doing this work and building relationships is something that I thoroughly enjoy. I have learned a lot about circumpolar Indigenous people, and this has been a rare opportunity for me. I didn’t know anything about the Saami or RAIPON before I started this job, so it’s really fascinating to learn about differences and similarities across the Circumpolar Arctic and the various Indigenous groups and governments.

One of the things that I see over the last sort of six years, or five years, is that we’re working harder on specificity in projects. The history of the SDWG is interesting. It belonged to the Senior Arctic Officials, and it’s the newest working group in the Arctic Council. It hasn’t been around that long, and I would suggest it has taken a while to find its feet and figure out its mandate and get the level of “independence” from the Senior Arctic officials because they used to sit at this table. It was the Senior Arctic Officials’ “working group”, and they handed it down mostly to their deputies and other foreign affairs folks. But I would say one of the things that I have seen is that we’re getting a little more into ‘on the ground’ impact projects which I really enjoy.

So we (1) do not have enough social sciences data, particularly around the Circumpolar Arctic. We need to do more data and research analysis of the Arctic in the area of social sciences. But (2), SDWG, in its short historic life, has done a lot of best practices, recommendations, and studies. While this work continues to be important, I think we’ve moved a bit more to these digital storytelling projects, to training renewable energy “experts” to getting people out on the ground to make a difference and to have an impact for Northerners which I really, really enjoy. It should be our raison d’etre. I think we need to do more of that. I hope that we will continue to do training projects or digital storytelling, developing Tool Kits to assess the potential for renewable energy in various communities, and continue to really engage Northern youth and  communities.

We have to be sure, through our Permanent Participants and also through our own channels, that we’re doing things that will have an impact on Northern community members. I think that’s really important, and I think we’re getting better at that.

Are you interested in learning more about the Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group and its work? Check out the SDWG website and read the SDWG final project reports from the Finnish Chairmanship here.

Justin Barnes is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative and the Assistant Editor of the Arctic Yearbook 2019: Redefining Arctic Security. At present, he is also pursuing an internship at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). He holds a MA in Sustainability Studies from Trent University’s School of the Environment, where his research focused on the sustainable development of Canada’s coastal communities on the Arctic Ocean. As part of this research, Justin explored the concept of environmental security, the role this form of security plays in shaping social, economic, and environmental policies, and its influence on resource and infrastructure development in the Arctic. Justin is also actively involved in the sport of Sailing and represented Canada internationally on the World Sailing circuit as an athlete on the Canadian Sailing Team for five years (2013 – 2018).
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