Indigenous people discuss their role in a changing Arctic

Laila Susanne Vars, vice president of Norway's Sami Parliament, spoke at the People's Arctic conference in Kiruna, Sweden on Sunday. (Photo: Per Jarl Elle/UiN).

In a rapidly changing Arctic, the region’s indigenous people are standing at the forefront of climate change and resource development – a situation that’s putting them increasingly in the international spotlight and raising questions about their role in Arctic policy making.


“The whole world is looking to what happens in the Arctic,” said Laila Susanne Vars, vice president of Norway’s Sami Parliament. She was speaking at the People’s Arctic conference in Kiruna, Sweden on Sunday in advance of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting happening there this week.

“It’s the melting of the sea ice, it’s the global warming, it’s the industrialization of the Arctic, it’s the changes in our environment that we can see on a daily basis.”

All these changes are putting pressure on the livelihoods and cultures of indigenous groups who have traditionally used Arctic lands and are opening up debates about land rights and resource ownership, Vars said. But these issues are difficult to address because of indigenous groups’ complex relationships with federal governments and because indigenous groups don’t have voting rights on international decision-making organizations such as the Arctic Council or United Nations.

Indigenous groups, including the Sami Council and the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North, hold permanent participant status in the Arctic Council, an organization that brings together the eight circumpolar nations to discuss Arctic politics. As permanent members, indigenous groups can take part in meetings and suggest Council projects, but are not allowed to vote, which is a right reserved for the eight member states.

Bill Erasmus, Grand Chief of the Dene in Canada’s Northwest Territories who also presented at the conference, said he thought indigenous people would get a voting seat in the Arctic Council within his lifetime. Though Vars admitted this is a possibility, she said she was sceptical about how meaningful it would be.

“Yes, we might get a seat in the Arctic Council and yes, we might even get a seat further up in the UN (United Nations) system one day, but will that solve our problems? I think not,” she said.

Vars said that before indigenous groups seek voting rights on organizations such as the Arctic Council, they need to build capacity of indigenous people to show a united front to governments and industry and start connecting globally with other groups and organizations dealing with similar issues.

“Perhaps the solution isn’t that the Sami get their own seat in the Arctic Council and that will solve all our issues,” she said. “Maybe we should think outside the box and try to see how can indigenous people be represented on all these different bodies that are important.”

The two-day conference on Arctic indigenous peoples wraps up Monday afternoon. The Arctic Council ministerial meeting, which is held every two years, takes place May 15.