Every two years, the Model Arctic Council is held in the state currently chairing the Arctic Council. Participating students are selected from across the circumpolar Arctic and non-Arctic states, and work collaboratively to simulate the work of the Member States, Permanent Participants, Working Groups, Observers, and others who are involved in Arctic Council negotiations, in a course that leads up to a one-week residency at the host university. This year, coinciding with the Arctic Science Summit Week, the University of Akureyri was to welcome the class of MAC2020 from March 23 through 27. Tasked with representing an institution from outside their home state, students had been eagerly preparing their position papers and partaking in online seminars prior to the intended culmination of the programme in Northeast Iceland.
I was ecstatic to have been one of the students selected to represent my home university and to delve deeper into Arctic governance issues. Having been involved in a variety of student-government organisations throughout my education (from Service Action Council and Prefect Committee at Mulgrave School to Class Representative at UH), I was confident that I had the skills necessary to contribute to the programme. Still, I was also aware that I was entering a whole new ballgame; the opportunity to collaborate with youths from across the polar region and beyond to better understand Arctic diplomacy was unique to this programme. I began counting down the days until I would be on my flight from London, UK, to Akureyri.
While the MAC2020 and ASSW coordinators were hard at work to accommodate the new needs of the programme, I was frantically trying to book a ticket home to Canada…
Ten days prior to the event, however, the faculty had to make a difficult decision. In light of increasing travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the course was restructured to allow for 100% online delivery. While the MAC2020 and ASSW coordinators were hard at work to accommodate the new needs of the programme, I was frantically trying to book a ticket home to Canada; shortly after, Prime Minister Trudeau advised all Canadians abroad to come home and to quarantine upon arrival. Safely back on Canadian soil, I set to work to prepare myself for the MAC2020, albeit remotely.
When I sat down in front of my laptop from the kitchen table in my “quarantine abode” – a family friend’s guesthouse where I could stay in isolation for two weeks – for our introductory session on Friday, March 20, I was unsure what to expect. I had long been looking forward to travelling to Akureyri, meeting like-minded students, working in groups to prepare and present arguments and cultivate an Arctic governance mindset all while making lifelong friends and building a network of future colleagues. I wasn’t so concerned about the new delivery of the programme per se, but rather apprehensive about my own ability to focus on the task at hand when so much of my attention was being pulled to the current state of affairs. My fears dissipated as the programme coordinators explained how we would proceed over the next week. Despite the digital platform, I felt immediately at ease with my new peers. Come Monday morning, I was ready to “go to school”!
I was tasked with representing RAIPON, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North Russian, on PAME, the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group. We set to work Monday morning with discussions of the problem plastics in the Arctic, relevant work of PAME, and the potential role of the Arctic Council moving forward as it pertains to the marine environment. We each had the opportunity to present our proposals that focused on improving the regulation of the Arctic marine environment, much of which revolved around the existing protected areas and identifiable gaps. Because the meetings were occurring digitally, we were able to “pass notes” to one another, allowing us to quickly react and form alliances with one another. Negotiations and MOUs became a normal addition to my morning routine. The PAME meeting group drafted our developed work plan and soon the Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meetings were in full-swing.
Almost as soon as it had began, MAC2020 was over. As we participated in our last session, where the floor was opened for feedback and comments, I caught myself feeling emotional. The course had gifted me a sense of purpose during a tumultuous time. Despite our physical distance, I felt connected to fellow students and our team of professors and experts. There was a part of me that was saddened, too; sad that we were unable to join together in Akureyri, to foster our connections further. There were many positives that we had experienced by having the course online, but one aspect that could not be replicated was the face-to-face connection that flourishes in Arctic climates.
Gratitude is a word I have been using a lot lately. I am so grateful that I was able to return to Canada from the UK. I am so grateful for the hospitality of dear friends and to have a safe and spacious place where I have enjoyed ample space to dance, create, read, and learn. I know many around the world are not so lucky, and my heart has hurt daily for those in situations where staying home may mean being subjected to threats to their personal safety and wellbeing.
In a time where we are all required to practise social distancing, I have been grateful to have friends like Heather, who has used her knowledge of fascia stretch therapy to generate resources online. I having been “going to the dance studio” via Zoom, where I reunited with my team and got back to the “barre”, aka my kitchen chair. Embracing learning opportunities, whether academic, professional, or for personal and physical development has been essential to my own mental-wellbeing during this unprecedented time.