A Changing Arctic Council: Interview with Saami representative Gunn-Britt Retter

While questioning Gunn-Britt Retter between mouthfuls of salad in the main cafeteria at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, our conversation was more than once interrupted by well-wishers from state representatives and other Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations saying “hello” and “thank you”. As her biography testifies, for more than 20 years the Saami Council’s story has been part of own her personal journey. As Head of the Arctic and Environmental Unit, working together with elected representatives from three Saami Parliaments, Gunn-Britt has developed a coherent and pragmatic approach to Arctic policy management. Her sensitivity to the differences of opinion among other Arctic state and Indigenous actors belies a keen eye for strategy and tactics. Accordingly, widely respected, she offers important insights about how these relatively small, independent Saami Indigenous-led community organizations came together to claim a seat at a the world’s newest, emerging multilateral forum (hint: always show-up; set the right tone). In this regard, the Saami Council has leap-frogged ahead of other international Indigenous organizations through timely governance and management practice reforms.

Tellingly, as Gunn-Britt explains, both the Saami Council and the Arctic Council’s Indigenous Peoples Secretariat have restructured to meet the changing demands of the Arctic Council and its growing presence in the Arctic region with over 100 projects under its management. For Indigenous Permanent Participant members, such transformations are far from complete; the decision of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference not to participate in the Álgu Fund is one example that speaks to the experimental nature of this venture. Arctic states, Canada among them, are also experiencing difficulty in securing a foothold in a new, transformed Arctic regime, where global powers like India and China have been welcomed among the ranks of state observers, while others (the European Union) are excluded. Overall, Saami Council thinking, as articulated by Gunn-Britt Retter, reflects an appreciation for the possibilities for leveraging multi-level governance within the Arctic Council.

Northern Public Affairs: Going into the Canadian chairmanship after the Kiruna declaration, your expectations were quite high. From the Saami perspective, how did the Canadian work program fare? And as a follow-up to that, under the United States Chairmanship — maybe you could give me a sense of how it has gone since then?

Gunn-Britt Retter: I remember my expectations for the Canadian chairmanship were high. I always have high expectations for the chairmanships. It was high for Canada because I felt it was they who were the ones who had started negotiations of having an Arctic Council rather than only an Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy; to have it at a high level with foreign ministers meeting rather than environmental ministers and also in those days when they had a strong position on the involvement or participation of the Indigenous peoples. So with that in mind, I had high expectations I remember and, yes, I think Canada was very supportive for the Permanent Participants as they actually took seriously how traditional knowledge was used in the Arctic Council. So they took that seriously and conducted two expert workshops on traditional knowledge so we could try to manage to get the Permanent Participants agreed on what they call “árbevierru”, traditional knowledge principles.

Every declaration talks to the need to strengthen the Indigenous Peoples’ capacity, but then nothing happens. So, then we just went ahead to establish the [Álgu Fund] ourselves. We hope that it will be effective.

Canada also offered to bring onto the table the funding for Permanent Participants and they actually paid for a process for addressing these things. But what was challenging for the Canadian Chairmanship was the geopolitical situation, which was changing during the chairmanship and had started to change earlier, I guess. So the Arctic Council officials were not as efficient as they could have been, because of the Ukraine issue that came up during those chairmanships that impacted between those states and Russia. So while Working Groups did their things, and Permanent Participants did their things, and Canada was supportive, at the higher level it was more tense in a way. And if you listen to all the Iqaluit Ministerial statements you’d be surprised to hear how many emphasized that the Arctic Council should remain a forum of peace and stability and that the Arctic Region should remain a place of peace and stability; you never heard so many people repeat that before. Even though you have always said that in the declaration, rarely have I heard anyone emphasize that so much. And that was the mirroring the global situation at that time.

NPA: And then the Iqaluit Declaration?

GBR: Canada had a lot of focus on the economic development and wanted to form the Arctic Economic Council, which actually started within the Sustainable Development Working Group under the [preceding] Swedish Chairmanship where they actually addressed the Corporate Social Responsibility, and that evolved to the Arctic Economic [Business] Forum that then became the Arctic Economic Council.

NPA: Did the United States take the Iqaluit Declaration and run with it or did they try to substantially change its direction during implementation?

GBR: No. The Declaration is influenced by the common [Working Group] Chairs. The task forces they were initiating already had the themes lined up for inclusion in the Declaration.

NPA: The United States Chairperson, David Bolton, has said it is important for the Arctic Council to embrace strategic planning, something the SDWG has pursued during his Chairmanship.

GBR: Yes, so one question is: Is the Arctic Council becoming more efficient, as Sweden called for, now that you have a permanent secretariat? Is that the reason why we see more need for a strategic planning? Yes, of course the Arctic Council is becoming more muscular and is growing in that sense. The attention to the Arctic now calls for the need for an Arctic strategy. If you look at all the states, they have their own Arctic strategies. So the question is, what is happening? Are they drawing [pulling in] different directions? How would you put these national Arctic strategies together to pull the Arctic Council in the same direction? That is the needed direction.

NPA: Now we have at the back-end of the U.S. Chairmanship, we have the election of the Trump Administration. Right out the gate, the Aleut International Association has lost an important Bering Sea Elders Advisory Committee thrown out by Executive Order. But during the Chairmanship, it appears that a lot of work was accomplished.

GBR: The change of presidency came late in the Chairmanship itself. Also, most of the hard work is carried out by Working Groups, through work plans, so those initiatives were underway and those recommendations are unaffected, but how you bring those recommendations into action in the next declaration, in their implementation, is probably where you see that there has been a change. But I think if the Arctic Council remains concrete and true to their science, with traditional knowledge used as a basis for decision-making, I think that it is hard to get around the recommendations. Of course, you end up in a discussion: What are recommendations, what are the possible follow-up actions, what do you call the results? That is where the debate will be taking place.

NPA: In 2013, the thematic issues of concern to the Saami Council were: mental health; Indigenous entrepreneurship; and incorporating traditional knowledge. Are these the same going into the Finnish Chairmanship?

GBR: Yes, but there are nuances. For example, we think mental health is something that we have to work on locally. Because Indigenous Peoples are circumpolar, we see the same challenges in many of the same Arctic communities, so I think we still have something to learn from one another. Also, the focus on mental health in the Arctic Council has helped the Saami Council to move on, and to have some regional work carried out, but we still see that it is an important theme so we are still interested in seeing what we can do to promote mental well-being. The Indigenous entrepreneurship focus was linked to the Arctic Economic Council, so we haven’t forced that into the Arctic Council work and that hasn’t been the highest on the agenda on the Arctic Economic Council either but that was one concrete project that were interested to put in, but we are focused more in the Arctic Economic Council. The Saami representatives have been working more on the Arctic stewardship initiative. Our representatives have been working on the report there.

NPA: How does the Saami Council work with the Arctic Economic Council?

GBR: The challenging thing is that they promote the Arctic Economic Council to be independent from the Arctic Council and independent from the states that have established it, but still haven’t come up with a solution as how to finance Indigenous business representatives’ participation. But the Indigenous business representatives come from micro enterprises; they are often one or two person businesses, so they can’t afford to participate in such a forum. So they look to Saami Council for funding, but then everyone forgets about the independence that they want to have from the states. That doesn’t go for Indigenous Peoples organizations so they look to Saami Council to support those representative, so nobody questions whether they are independent from the Council.  

NPA: Yes, and this is a concern for all Permanent Participants?

GBR: Yes, nobody is saying that Saami Council should fund them, but only one of our representatives is able to support his own way.

NPA: On that point, are you concerned with states off-loading their responsibility onto Permanent Participants?

GBR: Yes, the states will say it is the corporation’s responsibility to follow such laws, to dialogue with Indigenous Peoples, but the corporations say we just we follow the Swedish or Norwegian law.

NPA: Have your fears been realized, in terms of the off-loading this responsibility to the Arctic Economic Council? Have you been told to go to them or are you still engaged with the states on this?

GBR: Yes, well of course there are different levels here. So we have Saami Parliaments in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, and they deal with the national level issues and so a lot of things remain unresolved, but no one has told us go to the Arctic Economic Council to solve that problem.

NPA: Further on the question of funding, the Álgu Fund (Saami translation: beginning, a start, embryo) has been established as an endowment fund, as a ways and means to support Permanent Participant at the Arctic Council. As I understand it, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference will not participate. Does the establishment of this fund pose a dilemma for the Arctic states, who may be seen as stepping away from their own obligations for stewardship for Indigenous Peoples?

GBR: The main target for the Álgu Fund is not the states, who we already have relationship with, but with the [Arctic Council official] Observers, who are expected to support it. It is an opportunity for funders and Observers, or others who might be interested, to put money into a central pot where, first, you can have equal distribution to all the Permanent Participants to strengthen their organizational capacity; and, second phase, to have a place where you can apply for project funding for the Arctic Council. So it is a place to put funding, not directly to any organization, but to have a central pot where you can have a distribution. And it’s mainly not for those countries we already have relationships with, so at least for the Saami Council, we have made it clear we would like to continue to have that relationship with Sweden, Finland, and Norway, that we would like to continue to have this relationship with them.

If Arctic Council were established today, I am not sure how the Indigenous Peoples’ representation would have been that is an interesting question. What if there hadn’t been those strong people around to negotiate for that strong seat at the table?

NPA: Point taken, but in Canada’s case and in particular, why I ask the question is that the Permanent Participants struggle all the time to carry out their Arctic Council responsibilities, operating under often stringent contribution terms does this not put Canada, for example, in competition with China, Singapore, or India who may be giving more money (albeit through pooled funding) to one of their own Permanent Participant organizations than they do themselves? Would they not be afraid this may call into question their ‘stewardship’ responsibilities for Indigenous Peoples, upon which often their claims to national sovereignty and jurisdiction are based?

GBR: They should be! (Laughter). Since I started at the Arctic Council in 2001, this question has been on the table, about funding. But there has been no mechanism in place and we’ve had no agreement on how to do it. We had in 2005, in the Reykjavik Declaration, language saying every project in the Arctic Council should provide basic funding for Permanent Participant participation in place for each project. So every declaration talks to the need to strengthen the Indigenous Peoples’ capacity, but then nothing happens. So, then we just went ahead to establish this fund ourselves. We hope that it will be effective to these objectives.

NPA: I’d like to go back now to our discussion on strategic planning. In an article written for NPA’s 2013 Arctic Council edition, you stated: “The Arctic Council cannot be stronger than the weakest link and not more efficient than the least efficient part.” Perhaps, this is a good time to ask the question: how do Permanent Participants view strategic planning? You’ve talked about some interesting developments with respect to Permanent Participant financing; perhaps now you’d now like to talk about strategic planning, because earlier you’ve said some interesting things, like strategic planning at a local level, strategic planning for Indigenous groups, is very local, whereas strategic planning for a state is an authorization process or sanctioning process for lower level actions. So, how has it proceeded with the United States, where Chair David Balton has called for increased centralization, and how will it proceed under the Finnish Chair who has been given responsibility to bring in an over-arching strategic plan for the Arctic Council? [2017 Arctic Council Ministerial (Fairbanks) Declaration (s.34)]

GBR: Yes, well I think what I was saying earlier on it is probably the Arctic Council itself that has seen the need for the strategic plan; it’s not only the U.S. Chair’s idea that it is needed. If you look back historically, it might be a natural moment because over the years, let’s say at least beginning in 2001 when I started at the Arctic Council, more and more attention has been given to the Arctic and all the Arctic states have developed their own strategic plans over the last 10 years, and renewed them. And so would you see eight Arctic states having similar, but different, strategic plans and they get together at the Arctic Council, at the political level, and are pulling in different directions, because they have their strategic plan at home, or Arctic strategy, or something. So they would come here and promote those strategies. Also, we now have a so-called “strengthened” Arctic Council, by establishing a secretariat that has been functional from 2013, so you also have more capacity to do that kind facilitation of strategic planning. So, I think people have seen that since you have those different strategies, you also need to have one Arctic strategy: what are those common things, which direction do we want to bring to the Arctic?

NPA: Do you mean taking the conflict out of the scarce time at the Arctic Council table, and redirecting this into another forum so that these conflicts can be resolved?

GBR: No, but maybe more long-term thinking about the Arctic, because Arctic states have done their thinking how would that benefit the Arctic Council and how do you take those and make them draw in the same direction?

NPA: Not many organizations have the capacity for strategic planning; it takes a little bit of time and space to think it through. What about the Saami Council; do you have a long-term, 10-year strategic plan?

GBR: We are developing one, actually! (Laughter). We are prepared. We are working on a Saami Arctic strategy. We didn’t do that for a long time because we thought that everything Saami Council does, Saami Parliaments do, is somehow an Arctic policy. But we are now also seeing increased requests for partnerships and increased requests for the Saami Council to participate in research institutions and Saami centres at universities, and we keep getting pressed for partnerships, because the European Union has big funding programs, which call for some Indigenous component in their funding. Also, as someone at a university asked me, “Do you have any priorities on this research for this? For students who wish to do some Arctic related research, how should we guide them to select these? Should we have a common strategy to move these in the same direction?” So it’s all that we have many institutions in the Saami community: we have Saami Council at the international level; we have Saami Parliaments; then you have [sub-national Saami] institutions. So then we should have some processes to start to look in the same direction; and also, to guide our relationship with others, from the outside, looking for partnerships.

NPA: One question on the Arctic Indigenous Peoples Secretariat: has the purpose of Indigenous Peoples Secretariat changed?

GBR: No, it’s a legal a separate legal entity under the Director, Arctic Council Secretariat, but we still remain the board and the board has to appoint the Director and so on, so we have been careful about that. But it’s a small-staffed secretariat; the Arctic Council has a large staff. We have to be very strong not to be ‘eaten’ by the Big Brother! But at the same time, it is also good to be beside a big secretariat because then you know what’s happening; the Permanent Participants have the ears and eyes on developments, early on and we would know what’s happening. It’s good in that sense, there are both pros and cons.

NPA: Well, we’ve come to the final question and I’m not certain what to ask! So, I’ll ask you: What’s the next big thing? What will the Permanent Participants membership look like in 20 years?

GBR: Well, there is the retrospective and the prospective view. I’m sometimes happy that those wise people were around to negotiate the seat for the Indigenous Peoples at the [Arctic Council] table because, if Arctic Council were established today, I am not sure how the Indigenous Peoples’ representation would have been that is an interesting question. What if there hadn’t been those strong people around to negotiate for that strong seat at the table? But we are only NGOs. We have Saami Parliament, and some people ask why Saami Parliaments are not represented, but then you’d have to change the Arctic Council – it’s not really a seat for Indigenous Parliaments. And where are there Indigenous Parliaments? The Territorial governments in Canada, for example: are they not geographical, not Indigenous?

NPA: Thank you, Gunn-Britt!

Photo credit: istockphoto/HildaWeges

Gunn-Britt Retter 9.5.17Gunn-Britt Retter was born and raised in the coastal Saami community Unjárga-Nesseby by Varangerfjord in the north-eastern Norway. She is a graduate in teacher training from Sámi University College (Guovdageaidnu – Kautokeino, Norway) and holds Master of Arts degree in Bilingual Studies from University of Wales. Since 2001, Retter has worked on Arctic environmental issues, first at the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat in Copenhagen Denmark, and since 2005, as Head of the Arctic and Environmental Unit of the Saami Council. She has participated in full eight-country cycle of Chairmanships from 2002-2018 and is responsible for coordinating all the activities of the Saami Council within the Arctic Council. Retter also served two terms as Member of Saami Parliament (Norway) between 2005-2013.

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