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Arctic business forum has first meeting, fulfilling Canadian promise

IQALUIT, Nunavut - Canada will live up to promises it made two years ago when the first meeting of the Arctic Economic Council begins Tuesday in Iqaluit.

Creation of the group was to be the centrepiece of Canada's agenda as it assumed leadership in 2012 of the overall Arctic Council, which is made up of the eight countries that ring the North Pole. Canada's chairmanship ends this year.

The new economic council will be a clearinghouse for businesses seeking to operate responsibly in the Arctic, said Tom Paddon, president of Baffinland Mines and one of three Canadian delegates to the new body.

"Business has been going on for a long time in the North and over time, a series of best practices as to how to go about doing things environmentally and in a socially responsible way has been built up," Paddon said in a government-produced video released earlier this summer.

"It makes sense to share those."

The goals of the body include advising the Arctic Council and fostering business relationships across the Arctic. It is able to set its own membership, governance and activities.

It is directed to take into account environmental protection and the encouragement of aboriginal business.

All 21 members of the economic council are from the private sector. Six aboriginal groups will also attend the meeting.

At least one group is leery of the Arctic Economic Council.

The World Wildlife Fund, which originally supported the group, has said that the way it has been set up is opaque and unaccountable. The fund said it was refused permission to observe this week's meeting.

"The proposed body will be neither open nor transparent and accountable to no one but the large industries expected to cover the costs of the group," the fund has said. "It will comprise an indeterminate group of business interests selected according to no clear criteria and acting on their own behalf."

But Hannu Halinen, Finland's senior Arctic official, said the business council will strengthen the overall Arctic Council.

"We have seen the expanding agenda to economic issues," he said on the same government video.

"There is really a demand for business activities. What is missing is a framework to interact with business, to set guidelines."

Duane Smith of the Inuit Circumpolar Council said the new body could help ensure development is done right in the North.

"It's an opportunity for them to ensure, with the involvement of indigenous people, so have meaningful deliberations and discussions on how the Arctic should be approached, managed, sustained and developed in a manner that everybody can live with," he said in the video.

Business interest in the North has been growing, partly fostered by the decline of Arctic sea ice.

Mining is the region's largest economic driver. Energy exploration, both onshore and offshore, is growing despite controversy in some areas. Fisheries are growing and may expand as more is learned about regional stocks.

The Northwest Passage has seen its first commercial shipment and more are expected. Communities hope to cash in on cruise ship tourism.

The next country to lead the Arctic Council will be the United States.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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