Arctic Circumpolar Governance

Countries of the Arctic

The Arctic covers over one sixth of the earths' landmass; more than 30 million km2 and twenty-four time zones. It has a population of about four million, including over thirty different indigenous peoples and dozens of languages.

There are 8 Arctic States, and people live in remote Arctic regions of each of them. But for many of these states those living in the Arctic are a minority, with most of the population living outside of the Arctic. There are a range of political structures to govern the relationship between the nation states and their northern regions.

The indigenous people who have lived there for centuries had a nomadic lifestyle following their oral laws. Leaders got their authority by being great hunters or a combination of ability and birth-right.

Various laws were passed in some of the countries during the 19th century to try to make the indigenous Arctic people conform to the life style of the rest of the country. For example the Indian Act of 1876 in Canada extended power to the Canadian government to regulate and control the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada, including the people of the Arctic. The act was administered directly in indigenous communities by the Indian agent. These new white chiefs were to displace traditional indigenous leaders in order to bring in a new way of living. They had extraordinary administrative and discretionary power including guardianship over Indian lands, in effect they took the ownership away from the people who lived there.

Harold Cardinal was a Cree writer, political leader, teacher, negotiator and lawyer who died in 2005. He asserted "Instead of offering much needed protection to Indian rights the Indian Act subjugated to colonial rule the very people whose rights if was supposed to protect"

There are now three territories in Northern Canada: Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (the Inuktiut word for 'our land') which was created in 1999. Nunavut is above the tree line with a population of about 30,000. Inuktitukt was recognised as an official language of Nunavut alongside English and French in June 2009.

Why the need for change?

The Arctic is now seen as being an important region in world affairs for many reasons. Climate change has meant that shipping routes are becoming more accessible, mineral resources are easier to extract and tourism is flourishing. However the indigenous people of the region wish to preserve their ancient culture. As the Executive Secretary of the World Reindeer Herder Association, John Mathis Turi said at UN World Environment Day in June 2007

We have some knowledge about how to live in a changing environment. The term 'stability' is a foreign world in our language. Our search for adaptation strategies is therefore not connected to 'stability' in any form, but is instead focused on constant adaptation to changing conditions.

John Mathis Turi

What do you imagine the Arctic to be like?

Choose one image from the photo gallery that you think illustrates the Arctic.

Write a description of your image.

The countries in the Arctic sometimes use images of the Arctic on their stamps.

Download and read this virtual journey round the Arctic Circle investigating the Arctic images on some stamps.

stamp template

Design a stamp for one of the Arctic countries; explain why you have chosen this design.


Home | 1: Climate change | 2: Living on the edge | 3: Arctic science | 4: Hunter or hunted? | 5: Postcard from the edge | 6: Troubled waters | 7: Resources from the edge | 8: Arctic Circumpolar Governance | 9: Snow, water, ice, permafrost | 10: Adapting to change

For teachers | Resource finder | Help | About the site/terms and conditions

Discovering Antarctica, our sister site