The Indigenous Factor of East Asian Engagement with the Canadian Arctic

In the Arctic, as elsewhere, there are multiple ways of understanding borders. These multiplicities of understanding shape the values, goals and subsequent policy-making initiatives of concerned parties. Focusing on any one set of borders will lead to different perspectives, analysis and ways of understanding the Arctic, which will invariably shape engagement strategies across borders.For example, strictly speaking the Arctic refers to geographies, people, and institutions north of the Arctic Circle, but it is often referred to more vaguely as including much of the sub-arctic region north of 50 to 70 degrees latitude depending on location. From historical and political perspectives it is common to discuss the Arctic in relation to state and state claimed borders. And from ecological, environmental, economic and scientific perspectives we could also observe borders in the north according to sea ice, permafrost, tree lines, international shipping routes, resources, and migration routes of birds and sea life, and so forth. Indigenous peoples’ territories and organizational boundaries overlap with all of the above borders. Acknowledging Aboriginal borders in Canada is important for deepening our understanding of East Asian state’s increasing interest in the Arctic and ensuring positive and fruitful engagement between these parties.

Similar to how focusing on certain borders imposes perspectives, assumptions, and ways of knowing, so too does a focus on policy and protocols. In other words, policies and protocols and their creation, similar to borders and border creation, are inherently political and grounded in history. Seeing borders and policies in this light, together with an understanding that they function in pluralities and often overlap, provides occasion to advance relations between non-Arctic States and Aboriginal peoples in the region. Using an “indigeneity-grounded analysis” to create a booklet for promoting East Asia’s engagement with the Aboriginal people in the Canadian Arctic offers one such opportunity.[i]

Indigenous Peoples of the North

Indigenous peoples are the longstanding permanent population of the north. Their population is small and varies in proportion of total populations across the region. For example, the Arctic’s half a million Indigenous inhabitants account for about 13% of the regions total population. In Canada, Aboriginal people (Inuit, First Nations and Métis) account for about half the population in the north and number about 64,445.[ii] Despite their relatively small numbers they hold significant political and moral authority within Arctic governance systems. For example, in the Arctic Council, Indigenous peoples’ organizations, which overlap state borders, have been granted status as so-called Permanent Participants (PPs), holding full consultation rights related to negotiations and decisions. The six PPs are the Sami Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Aleut International Association, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Gwich’in Council International and the Arctic Athabaskan Council. The last three include Aboriginal communities from Canada.


Figure 1: Population Distribution in the Circumpolar Arctic (UNEP/GRID-Arendal) 


Figure 2: Population Distribution in the Canadian Arctic (UNEP/GRID-Arendal)


Figure 3: States, Organizations and Strategical Issues in the Arctic (UNEP/GRID-Arendal)

Participation in the Arctic Council

In 2008, China became the first East Asian country to apply for observer status in the Arctic Council. South Korea followed with its application in May 2008, and Japan applied in 2009. In May 2013, the Arctic Council granted all three states observer status.

Three documents outline the principles and rules for admitting observers. They are the 1996 Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council (the so-called Ottawa Declaration), the Arctic Council Rules of Procedure, and the Senior Arctic Officials Report to Ministers that was presented in May 2011 at the seventh Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland–the so-called Nuuk Report. This report came about in response to growing discussion on the non-Arctic state involvement in the Arctic Council and a few years after East Asian states, among others, submitted applications for gaining observer status. The Arctic Council handled observer admittance and responsibilities on an ad hoc basis before the Nuuk Report. The four criteria related to Indigenous peoples that observers must abide are:

  1. Accept and support the objectives of the Arctic Council defined in the Ottawa declaration;[iii]
  2. Respect the values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants;
  3. Have demonstrated a political willingness as well as financial ability to contribute to the work of the Permanent Participants and other Arctic indigenous peoples;
  4. Have demonstrated a concrete interest and ability to support the work of the Arctic Council, including through partnerships with member states and Permanent Participants bringing Arctic concerns to global decision making bodies.[iv]

East Asian states have acknowledged these criteria and affirmed their support for Indigenous peoples in the north. Nonetheless, Indigenous and non-Indigenous pundits have remained hesitant about these states’ increased involvement in the Arctic (as well as other non-Arctic applicants) because of the uncertainties they propose (or not) to engage northern Indigenous peoples. For example, in January 2013 the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami said that Chinese and European Union applications needed more scrutiny because they haven’t always respected Indigenous rights at home and abroad.[v] Apprehension of non-Arctic states involvement in the Arctic also exists among so-called Asia practitioners. According to an Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada poll 63% of “Asia practitioners agreed that the inclusion of non-Arctic states in Arctic governance bodies would dilute the voices of Indigenous groups.”[vi]

The three East Asian states have left significant room to appease the critics. For example, in 2012 a Japanese government official submitted to the Arctic Council that with regard to “the respect for values, interests, culture, and tradition of Arctic indigenous peoples, Japan is determined and eligible to address this matter in an appropriate way, based upon our own experiences with indigenous people living in Japan.”[vii] Such a comment sounds positive, proactive, and promising. Yet it ignores, or at the least misinterprets, Japan’s history and contemporary issues with the Ainu, Okinawans, and other Indigenous peoples. The statement sidesteps the commonly held position that the country is mono-ethnic and downplays that only in 2008 did the Japanese government recognize the Ainu in Hokkaido as Indigenous peoples, less than a year after voting in favour of the UNDRIP and shortly before the G8 summit was held in Hokkaido.

South Korea became the first non-Arctic state to issue an Arctic Policy with its 2013 Arctic Policy Master Plan of Arctic Strategy.[viii] This strategy mentions support for Arctic Indigenous peoples. For example, the policy states that the country respects the Arctic Council’s Indigenous participants and acknowledges their interest to be involved in Arctic related policy decisions. It suggests that Indigenous people should take part in Arctic monitoring programs aboard the country’s research icebreaker. It states that they will produce a book on the traditional knowledge of the Arctic indigenous community and that they welcome indigenous groups to partake in Arctic Circle negotiations.[ix] The Master Plan could prove problematic in Canada if interpreted as embracing neocolonial tendencies such as simply bring Indigenous people along to support Korean initiatives rather working with these people to create strong project foundations. Without clarification and dialogue between the two sides the wording and perspectives within the Master Plan could easily contribute to misunderstanding in Aboriginal – Korean relations and hinder future engagement.

China has similarly been unclear on its stance toward PPs. The Chinese government has generally viewed Indigenous people and related issues as domestic matters of other countries.[x] “While some of the Arctic issues are national in nature, some of them are regional that need to be addressed by Arctic states themselves in a coordinated manner, such as those relating to environmental protection, resources exploration, indigenous peoples and other social and economic issues. Arctic states have substantial interests in those issues.”[xi] Some pundits have argued that the Arctic Council’s own criteria of expressing support for Indigenous peoples should have excluded China from gaining observer status.[xii]

Chinese government officials have recently moved toward openly stating respect and intent to engage these parties. In a 2013 keynote speech at an Arctic conference in Norway the Chinese Ambassador to Norway, Zhao Jun, said that his country “respects the values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants,” and is open to exploring potential for co-operation.[xiii] In a 2014 article, Jia Guide, the deputy-director general of the Department of Treaty and Law at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, worked to further quell fears of China’s engagement with the Arctic by reinforcing Zhao’s views. China, he wrote, “also respects the values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic Indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants.” He continued, “China is a strong advocate of international cooperation regarding Arctic affairs be it an Arctic state, Indigenous peoples’ organization, or non-Arctic state.” On the topic of development he stated that China “is of the view that specific development activities should be carried out in a sustainable way that protects the environment, respects the interests and concerns of Indigenous peoples and abides by domestic laws of the Arctic state concerned and relevant international conventions.”[xiv]

Despite these reassurances by East Asian officials and documents, it remains unclear how they propose to respectfully create, expand and maintain partnerships with PPs and specifically Aboriginal people in northern Canada.

Towards a Protocol

The lack of coherent understanding on each side of the Pacific is in need of further attention. One challenge for enhancing East Asia – Aboriginal relationships in Canada is that starting points of Arctic perspectives differ. East Asian states view the Arctic through a global lens, meaning that their specific local and national interests and activities are first filtered through regional and international perspectives. On the other hand, Aboriginal people and organizations are more likely to view their interests first from local and regional northern perspectives and use these as a filter for viewing non-Arctic states and organizations.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders need to invest into helping facilitate proactive and positive engagement that considers these divergent views. In doing so, there is an important opportunity available to encourage Indigenous policy (-making) input. Sound and deliberate efforts are needed by both sides to develop sustainable partnerships, whether in resource development, tourism, shipping or scientific research. There is a need for such an initiative, especially for PPs individually or collectively, in addition to federal and territorial governments of the north to develop a strategy for engaging these new Arctic Council observers.[xv] Creating a booklet that could be translated into Japanese, Mandarin and Korean for distribution to East Asian government departments and corporations, and public with interests in the Canadian Arctic represents once possibility to proactively aid and facilitate long-term relationship building.

A relationship facilitation booklet could build off existing efforts to increase positive relationships between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples, companies and governments.[xvi] Such a booklet could take a number of shapes. Below represents an example of seven items for inclusion that incorporates local, national, regional and international components.

The booklet should begin with a brief historical overview of Aboriginal peoples in northern Canada and highlight some East Asia – Aboriginal Canadian exchanges. The historical overview would include a short description of pre and post contact lifestyles, diversity of cultural and linguistic groups, significance of land to northern Aboriginal people and contemporary governance and business practices. A sample of Aboriginal – East Asian exchanges would highlight local level affiliation.

Next, the booklet would include an overview of historical and modern treaties in Canada. The Crown and Aboriginal peoples have signed a variety of treaties, including commercial pacts, friendship and peace treaties, eleven numbered treaties, and modern treaties, also called comprehensive settlements. Before moving into the Arctic, East Asian stakeholders should look into the relevant treaty(s).

The numbered treaties, signed between 1871 and 1921, cover about 50 percent of Canada’s landmass. Many Aboriginal communities were, however, not signatories or resided outside of areas covered by these treaties. Since 1973 Aboriginal peoples have been increasingly regaining control of their autonomy and traditional lands and resources. Many non-signatories to the numbered treaties have been doing this in the form of comprehensive land claims agreements, also known as modern treaties. There are currently twenty-six comprehensive land claims agreements, three self-government agreements signed, and others under negotiation. Twenty-one of these claims cover most of the Canadian north, more than 40% of country’s lands, waters and resources. Treaties provide Indigenous communities with significant right to participation, consultation, regulation and monitoring processes. Perhaps the most notable of these is the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement that set out the creation of Nunavut in 1999.

htoc_1100100032308_eng Figure 4: Pre-1975 Treaties of Canada (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada)


Figure 5: Modern Treaties (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada)

Referencing Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution would be key as it recognizes and affirms existing treaty rights as well as those that may be acquired by Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples.[xvii]

The fourth item for inclusion is an overview of key court cases. There are hundreds of court decisions in Canada that address Aboriginal people and hundreds more in the works. Court cases have addressed issues of Aboriginal title to lands, government fiduciary duty, Aboriginal rights, the duty to consult and accommodate and they have given weight to Aboriginal oral history. To narrow the scope of which cases to highlight the booklet could, for example, outline and provide links to nine Supreme Court cases connected to resource development, a key issue in the north.[xviii]

The two short but important International Circumpolar Documents: “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic” (2009) and “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development Principles in Inuit Nunaat” (2011) are also worth of inclusion. The former declaration was written in opposition to the Illulissat meeting where the Arctic Ocean coastal states “defined themselves as sovereigns with stewardship role also over the ‘livelihoods of local inhabitants and indigenous communities,’” thereby limiting Inuit agency.[xix] It also advances Inuit agency within its view of a complex and multifaceted legal and governance architecture of sovereignty. It does so by highlighting that power comes from multiple sources, both formal and informal, by blending governance of international bodies, states, territories, Indigenous regional local organizations, together with their identities as Indigenous peoples, citizens of states, the Arctic and their own communities. It states that the Inuit are committed to “working with Arctic states and others to build partnerships in which the rights, roles and responsibilities of Inuit are fully recognized and accommodated” on issues of Arctic sovereignty including climate change and resource development.[xx] The later declaration, according to Aqqaluk Lynge, the ICC Chair at the time, stresses the need to have the “opportunity to have development centered on our own society.”[xxi]

Both of these ICC documents reference the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), so an overview and link to this declaration would be item six.[xxii] The document followed over twenty years of discussions between and among states and Indigenous peoples from around the world. It represents a growing standard reference of best practices by articulating a variety of Indigenous peoples’ sui generis collective rights including self-determination, control of territories and resources, and right to free, prior, and informed consent.[xxiii]

Japan, China and South Korea all voted in favour of this declaration in 2007. Japanese and Chinese translations are readily available, but a Korean translation is not, suggesting that work also needs to be done to produce a readily accessible Korean version. The Japanese Diet recognized the Ainu as Indigenous people less than a year after the General Assembly adopted the UNDRIP, but it remains unclear on how Japan views the UNDRIP in relation to their Arctic interests. While there are no Indigenous peoples in Korea, the country has only recently begun to think of Indigenous people as potential actors in the Arctic, and hasn’t yet shown an explicit correlation between UNDRIP and their Arctic Policy Master Plan.[xxiv] Likewise, the PRC recognizes minorities, but not Indigenous people, within its borders and Chinese discussion on their interests and activities in the north has not dealt with UNDRIP.

The last item for inclusion under international best practices with potential applicability to the Canadian North is the 1989 International Labour Organization Convention No. 169, the “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.” This is the only legally binding international instrument that addresses Indigenous rights including Indigenous participation, consultation, consent, land and territories, right to development, education, health and social security and contacts across borders.[xxv] Although no East Asian country and only two northern countries ratified it (Norway and Denmark-including Greenland) a rudimentary understanding of it would aid rather than hinder East Asian relations with Aboriginal people of the north.[xxvi]


Working to enhance East Asia relations with the Canadian Arctic is akin to navigating multiple and overlapping state and non-state borders. Creating a booklet that would include the seven items briefly discussed, and possibly others, can help strengthen relationship foundations between East Asia and Aboriginal people in Canada. Strong foundations are key to diversifying exchanges beyond the predominance of artistic and cultural exchanges to include mutually beneficial and respectful government, business, development, and research relations.

Consequences for inaction are likely significant for northern Aboriginal communities and federal and territorial governments. Mutual misunderstanding between East Asian agents and Aboriginal people, along with a lack of a clear engagement protocol, could very easily impose significant risks for all parties. If projects, regardless if they are scientific, cultural exchanges or resource and development related, start off on the wrong foot they will likely take more time to take root, have a higher probability of incompletion or ending up being judicially disputed. Such outcomes will only increase hesitancy of Canadian parties to engagement East Asian stakeholders and decrease the possibility of fruitful investment in the north.

By proposing an indigeneity-grounded analysis for creating a booklet to support East Asia engagement with Aboriginal people in the Canadian Arctic this article hopes to spur dialogue and facilitate engagement of peoples, institutions, companies, and states across diverse sets of state and non-state borders. It aims to contribute to the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples mandated theme “partnership for action and dignity”[xxvii] by encouraging the Arctic Council, Permanent Participants within the Arctic Council and domestic Aboriginal communities and organizations in Canada to work together in establishing their own policies and protocols for engagement. After all, an indigeneity grounded analysis “must go beyond design or content to ensure success;” it must incorporate “multiple indigenous stakeholders in shaping policy outcomes.”[xxviii] Creating such a booklet will hopefully lead the way for drafting a more robust protocol or policy for engagement and spur the creation of Inuit, First Nations and Métis businesses and corporations in the north, as well as Canadian federal government agencies, that can build constructive and lasting relationships with East Asia.


Working Draft, written with support of a Post-Graduate Research Fellowship at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF Canada). Research does not necessarily reflect positions held by APF Canada.

Presented at the Association of Borderlands Studies / Western Social Sciences Association Conference, Portland, Oregon on April 8, 2015

Scott Harrison


[i] Neither policy nor policy making are neutral or value free; both are inherently political and unknowingly exclude some parties, interests, and values. Therefore, an “indigeneity grounded analysis,” that is using an Indigenous peoples lens for analyzing and creating policy, has important implications for improving “the relational status and well-being of Aboriginal peoples within a post colonial matrix” (Augie Fleras and Roger Maaka, “Indigeneity-Grounded Analysis [IGA] as Policy [-Making] Lens: New Zealand Models, Canadian Realities,” The International Indigenous Policy Journal Vol. 1, Issue 1 [2010], pp. 1-3).

[ii] In 2006, the Inuit portion of this population figure was 50,485.

[iii] The Ottawa Declaration, the founding document of the Arctic Council, states that the organization recognizes and supports the region’s Indigenous peoples.

[iv] Senior Arctic Officials. Senior Arctic Officials Report to the Ministries. Nuuk, Greenland, May 2011, p. 50.

[v] Lisa Gregoire, “Arctic Council Should Be Cautious about New Observer Hopefuls,” Nunatsiaq News, 1 February 2013.

[vi] Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, “Charting Canada’s Relations with Asia in the Arctic,” 2013, p. 11 (

[vii] Meeting between the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council and Observers/Ad-hoc Observers, Stockholm, Sweden, November 6, 2012. Statement by Parliamentary Senior Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, Mr. Shuji Kira, p. 2.

[viii] Young Kil Park, “South Korea’s Interests in the Arctic,” Arctic Policy No. 18 (July 2014): 59-65 and Young Kil Park, “Arctic Prospects and Challenges from a Korean Perspective,” in East Asia – Arctic Relations, 47-60.

[ix] Author correspondence with Young Kil Park (September 2014).

[x] “China, Korea, EU Woo Arctic Council at Norway Conference,” Nunatsiaq News, 22 January 2013.

[xi] Statement by H.E. Ambassador Lan Lijun at the Meeting between the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council and Observers, 6 November 2012.

[xii] Tony Penikett, “China & the Arctic,” Northern Public Affairs (December 2013): 77-78.

[xiii] “China, Korea, EU Woo Arctic Council.”

[xiv] Jia Guide, “China in the Arctic,” The Circle No. 3 (2014): 14-15.

[xv] James Manicolm and Whitney Lackenbauer, “East Asian States and the Pursuit of the Arctic Council Observer Status,” in East Asia-Arctic Relations: Boundary, Security and Politics, edited by Kimie Hara and Ken Coates (Waterloo: CIGI, 2014), p. 208 and Carin Holroyd “The Business of Arctic Development: East Asian Economic Interests in the Far North,” Canada-Asia Agenda Issue 34 (2012): 1, 6 & 8.

[xvi] For example, the British Columbia First Nations Energy and Mining Council’s 2011 “China Strategy” and the 2014 “Towards a Japan Policy”; Robert and Cynthia Joseph, Working Effectively with Aboriginal Peoples by Robert and Cynthia Joseph (Port Coquitlam, BC: Indigenous Corporate Training, 2012); and the British Columbia Government’s “Building Relationships with First Nations” sets of documents (some of which are available in Japanese, Mandarin and Korean).

[xvii] Justice Laws Website, “Constitution Act, 1982” (

[xviii] These would include Calder (1973), Guerin (1984), Sparrow (1990), Van der Peet (1996), Delgamuukw (1997), Powley (2003), Taku River Tlingit (2004), Haida (2004), and Tsilhqot’in (2014).

[xix] Timo Koivurova, “Sovereign States and Self-Determining Peoples: Carving Out a Place for Transnational Indigenous Peoples in a World of Sovereign States,” International Community Law Review Vol. 12 (2010): 208-209.

[xx] “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic”

[xxi] “ICC Says Yes to Oil and Gas, with Conditions,” Nunatsiaq Online, 11 May 2011.

[xxii] See 3.13 in “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic” and the Preamble, the Declaration, Article 2 and 10 in “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development Principles in Inuit Nunaat.”

[xxiii] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (

[xxiv] Discussions held under the Chatham House Rule in 2012 and 2014.

[xxv] C169 – Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) (

[xxvi] Similar to the UNDRIP a Korean translation is not readily available.

[xxvii] A/60/270, p. 3 and A/RES/60/142, p. 2

[xxviii] Fleras and Maaka, “Indigeneity-grounded Analysis,” 2.

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