Photo: Mathieu Parker
Photo: Mathieu Parker

Introducing Mathieu Parker: The new director of the Arctic Council Secretariat

Since the end of September, Mathieu Parker is the new Director of the Arctic Council Secretariat (ACS). The former Canadian government executive takes over the role from Nina Buvang Vaaja, who ended her term as ACS Director in August 2021 after serving the Council for twelve years. With over two decades of experience within the Government of Canada including 12 years as an executive, Mathieu Parker spent the last five years working first as Director General, and subsequently as Vice-President of Pan-Territorial Operations for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Mathieu Parker is excited at the prospect of contributing his Canadian Arctic experience to the ACS in the Norwegian capital of the Arctic, Tromsø, with the ambition to further strengthen the Council’s standing secretariat while supporting and increasing public awareness of the work of the Arctic Council.

Five years ago, Mathieu and his family took a leap of faith and embarked on a 2000 kilometer move North from the Ottawa region to the newest and smallest of the Canadian territorial capital cities: Iqaluit, Nunavut. As Head of Pan-Territorial Operations for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, he was hoping to experience ‘policy-making and program delivery on the ground’, as he calls it, after 15 years in the national capital region’s public service sphere leading the design and delivery of a variety of national social and employment programs and initiatives.

“This was a unique opportunity to live in the Arctic; to visit communities across all three Canadian territories; to connect with unique people and fascinating cultures; and to witness and experience first-hand the beauty of the Canadian Arctic but also some of the complex social, environmental and infrastructure challenges that impact the day-to-day lives of its people. All of this has definitely helped to broaden my perspective and gain a better appreciation for the need for evidence-based, northern-driven and informed policy making. Unless you have the opportunity to live through some of these socio-economic challenges day-in, day-out on the ground, it can be hard to fully grasp the interconnectedness and far-reaching impacts of some of the logistical and capacity issues faced by northern and remote communities on a daily basis. Ultimately, I think that is why southern-designed and focused policies and initiatives are often times difficult to successfully implement in the North”, says Mathieu Parker.

Quality time in the Canadian Arctic. (Photo Mathieu Parker)

The Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, or CanNor for short, provides funding for economic development projects across the three Canadian territories: Nunavut, Northwest Territories (NWT), and Yukon, while working closely with Indigenous Peoples, Northern communities, businesses, organizations, and other federal departments.

Through his role as Head of Operations, Mathieu Parker got the opportunity to visit and engage with business, government and indigenous stakeholders across the Canadian Arctic, and help influence program development and funding to ensure that it would be responsive to their needs. “One of my fondest memories of my time with CanNor is my outreach trip to Kimmirut in 2019”. A small hamlet of 400 people located 150km from Iqaluit, the community lies along the southern coast of Baffin Island, and has the second-shortest airstrip in Nunavut. “Because it is often times too stormy, windy or foggy for planes to land, it had been several years since CanNor officials had made it to the community for a visit, and so myself and three other colleagues decided to try a different approach and head out by snowmobile across the frozen Frobisher Bay and through the Soper River Valley for what turned out to be the most unique and beautiful community outreach trip ever! And in the end, I think our unconventional arrival helped to earn us a bit of street credit and community recognition, and our meetings with local Indigenous stakeholders in Kimmirut allowed us to gain a much deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the challenges faced by this small community.”

Taking the land route to Kimmirut. This picture is taken about halfway through the teams 6 hour snowmobile ride at the bottom of Mount Joy. (Photo: Mathieu Parker)

During his years in the Canadian Arctic, Mathieu Parker was able to witness how far small contributions go if they are applied in a tailored and responsive way. An investment that might be regarded as insignificant from a national perspective can generate tremendous outcomes in a small community with high unemployment rates. “Creating 20 new jobs might not sound like much in a metropolitan area, but in an isolated community of 300 people with a 65% unemployment rate, it can make a huge difference” he explains.

Through his role at CanNor, he realized how multi-dimensional and cross-cutting economic development in the North tends to be. “One of my main take-aways from my work in Nunavut is how interwoven social, cultural, environmental and economic issues can be, especially in a developing economy such as Nunavut’s. If you want a project to succeed, you need to take a holistic approach and ensure you truly understand and address all aspects.”

The stay in Nunavut was a unique experience for the whole Parker family. (Photo: Mathieu Parker)

Mathieu Parker describes his years in Nunavut as eye opening. They broadened his perspective on both Arctic socio-economic and environmental issues at large, as well as Indigenous realities and the lingering impacts of past federal policies, and one could say his experiences have served as a springboard to cross the Atlantic for his new job. “I had of course heard about the Arctic Council and peripherally been involved in some of its work, and I am a very strong believer in the role that the Council has and continues to play in the circumpolar North, so when the director’s position came up, I immediately knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up; both for myself professionally, but also for my family as a whole and the unique opportunity it provides all of us to experience a new country, new culture, and a new language.”

Over the summer, the Parkers packed their belongings for yet another move North. This time to the Arctic capital of Norway, Tromsø, the home of the Arctic Council Secretariat. And compared to probably most of his international colleagues at the Secretariat, Mathieu and his family were surprised by the size and infrastructure of Tromsø: “Iqaluit is a very small city with some 8,000 inhabitants, so in comparison Tromsø and its 80,000 people feels like a big city for us!”

Off to a new Arctic home: Mathieu Parker and his wife. (Photo: private)

While his three children settle into Tromsø’s International School, Mathieu Parker is eager to deep dive into the work of the Arctic Council Secretariat. “It’s exciting to be coming into this role at this juncture, and I look forward to contributing my own experience and energy to the great work that has been accomplished by this small but remarkable ACS team over its short history” he says. “The Arctic Council itself celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and can look back at a number of milestone reports, declarations and international agreements that have been negotiated under its auspices. The secretariat in comparison is relatively young, so I still see opportunities to strengthen it as an organization in order for us to continue support the work of the Council and ensure that it can continue to fulfill its mandate and have a positive impact on the Arctic and its people.”