A seat at the table – How Arctic Indigenous peoples negotiated their Permanent Participant status

The status of “Permanent Participants” is unique in international cooperation. The Arctic Council was the first (and so far only) intergovernmental forum to accredit Indigenous peoples’ organizations with a status that ensured them full participation in all matters and deliberations of the Council. While the Permanent Participants (PPs) are an integral part of the Council today, Arctic Indigenous peoples worked hard to secure their seat at the table.

By Alona Yefimenko

Almost two decades before the Council’s predecessor, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), was established, Inuit, Sámi and Russian Indigenous peoples of the North started their own processes. It was the early 1970s and Arctic peoples felt under growing pressure from the nation states they were living in. They therefore decided to meet and discuss their shared challenges.

In November 1973, they arranged a circumpolar meeting of the Arctic Peoples’ Conference in the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen. It was the first time, representatives of the Arctic peoples of Canada, Greenlandic Inuit and Sámi met at an international conference that they had organized for themselves.

The Arctic Peoples’ Conference was a strong and inspiring demonstration of unity and brought national and international attention. “It was of great importance for Arctic Indigenous leaders to jointly seek solutions to common challenges and problems. However, they lived within different social and political frameworks and they had much to learn from each other,” said Ole Henrik Magga, former President of Saami Parliament.

ArcticPeoplesConference 1973 (Photo: Jens Brøsted)

Securing a seat at the AEPS

For the Arctic Indigenous peoples, engaging in international co-operation meant to gain real political influence. However, despite earlier joint meetings and conferences, the cooperation between the Arctic Indigenous peoples had not been formalized yet – but an opportunity to change this was on the horizon in the late 1980s.

As the process that would establish the AEPS was under way, the Arctic States invited Mary Simon, then president of the ICC, to their preparatory meeting in Yellowknife in 1990 to make a presentation on what she thought the role of Indigenous peoples should be. “I was under the understanding that I was going to be a participant in the meeting and be able to have a dialogue with the delegates. But when I got there, the Chair told me that I could sit in the back until my name came up on the agenda. That did not sit very well with me. So, I said to the Chair: if I cannot participate in this meeting as a participant, I will not participate at all,” said Mary Simon.

She got up, packed her papers and walked out of the meeting room – almost into the arms of CBC reporters, who were waiting for any kind of interviews. But just before she could tell her story to the media, the Chair asked her to discuss the matter in a separate room. “I wouldn’t let down. This was a make-or-break deal. If we cannot get in now, we will probably never get in.” In the end, she was able to attend the meeting as a regular participant – a first breakthrough.

Aware of the events in Yellowknife and the unique opportunity to include Indigenous voices, members of the Saami Council went across the Atlantic to meet with the ICC board. Jointly they decided that they would invite representatives of RAIPON to Kiruna in Sweden, at the same time as the governments would meet there for the third AEPS preparatory meeting.

So, three leaders of the Indigenous peoples’ organizations Leif Halonen, the President of the Saami Council, Aqqaluk Lynge, then Vice President of Inuit Circumpolar Conference, and Vladimir Sangi, the first President of RAIPON, met in Kiruna in January 1991 and prepared a declaration. “During that process, the Saami Council decided to hold a reception for the governments and the Sámi that were in Kiruna at that time. So we would be able to talk to the government representatives there,” said Leif Halonen.

Before the reception, the Indigenous representatives had a chance to talk to the Swedish head of delegation, Cecilie Edmar, and she promised them that she would ask the governments if they would allow the Indigenous NGOs to be part of the meetings in Kiruna. And she succeeded. The Indigenous representatives were allowed to participate in the plenary meeting as well as in the meetings of the emerging Task Forces (today’s AMAP, CAFF, EPPR and PAME). They contributed to the declaration text and programs that were written – but when the Rovaniemi Declaration that established the AEPS was finalized, the ICC, the Saami Council and RAIPON were listed as Observer organizations.

Due to their Observer status in the AEPS, the Indigenous peoples’ organizations could attend the plenary meeting and add their insights and knowledge, but they were not allowed to attend the closed negotiations among the eight Arctic States during which recommendations to ministers were discussed. Political leaders of the three Indigenous peoples’ organizations therefore demanded a meeting with representatives of the Arctic States at the 1993 Nuuk Ministerial meeting. They were indeed invited to a private breakfast with Ministers and they voiced their concern that their exclusion was contrary to the spirit of co-operation in the circumpolar world.

Mary Simon (to the left) at the inauguration of the Arctic Council in Ottawa 1996. (Photo: Mike Pinder Photography)

Becoming Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council

Two years later, in 1995, Canada took the unprecedented step of creating the post of Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs. The first to hold this position was Mary Simon, the former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (who had negotiated her way into the second AEPS preparatory meeting). She was to Chair the negotiations on the establishment of an Arctic Council and she was ready to push for the equitable involvement of Indigenous peoples.

“We were meeting at the Foreign Affairs conference room in Ottawa and we were reaching a breaking point,” said Mary Simon. “I remember sitting with my Co-Chair and saying: if this thing falls through, we need to get up and say that the negotiations fell apart.” But the willingness to find a solution prevailed and so a committee was set up, including Mary Simon and a few representatives from the Arctic States and Indigenous peoples’ organizations. “We must have started our meeting around four in the afternoon and we went on until early morning. I was emphasizing that we were not giving in, this was critical for us. And finally, we came up with this Permanent Participant category,” said Mary Simon.

Permanent Participants (PPs) would not have the same status as the Arctic States, but they would not be mere Observers either – it was a category in between. “Permanent Participants were able to sit at the table with the Senior Arctic Officials and the Ministers and to have the dialogue that is absolutely necessary for consensus building. We couldn’t go much further than that. So, we agreed to this status,” said Mary Simon. It was the first time that a category on this level was set up for Indigenous peoples in an international organization.

The Ministerial meeting in Ottawa that established the Arctic Council thus became a milestone to the three Indigenous peoples’ organizations that were included as PPs. For the first time, they were able to sit at the table with Ministers, to express their views, make presentations, and to ask questions. They had a forum that they had never had before.

At the inauguration of the Arctic Council (Photo: Mike Pinder Photography)

From three to six Permanent Participants

While the Ottawa Declaration mentions ICC, the Saami Council and RAIPON as PPs, it also left the door open for further members – as long as the number of PPs did not exceed that of Arctic States and as long as the following criteria was met: that an organization represented a single Indigenous people resident in more than one Arctic State; or more than one Arctic Indigenous people resident in a single Arctic State.

While North American Indigenous peoples had been involved in some of the meetings and processes, they still had to set up organizations that could represent them in the Arctic Council. And so, the Aleut International Association was admitted as PP in 1998, and the Arctic Athabaskan Council and the Gwich’in Council International in 2000 – bringing the number up to currently six PPs.

Learn more about the Permanent Participants and the Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat, whichassists in creating opportunities for the PPs to present their causes, support the provision of necessary information and materials, and communicate information about their work in the Arctic Council and beyond.

Share