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Canada’s foreign minister is joining her Russian and U.S. counterparts Thursday for an intimate gathering to discuss environmental concerns in the north.
But the conversations on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting will likely be of great interest, given the growing political tensions between the three largest participants.
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are among the eight political representatives attending the meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The sit-down comes at a time of growing international instability.
A government source with direct knowledge of the summit said Canada is keen to stick to the issues on the agenda, but acknowledged there will likely be opportunities for “real conversations” in private on other topics.
The ongoing investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. election could easily become a source of friction in Alaska, but there are also concerns involving Canada that could emerge.
Ottawa’s relationship with Moscow certainly hasn’t grown cozier in the wake of Freeland’s appointment as foreign minister.
In March, she was targeted in a smear campaign appearing on pro-Russian websites that link her grandfather to Nazi Germany. When asked about the articles, Freeland warned Canada should be prepared for Russian attempts to destabilize its democracy.
Before she even took on the role, she was already subject to Russian sanctions, which ban her from travelling to the country. In 2014, Russia announced a series of retaliatory measures against Canadian officials after Canada levelled sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea.
Freeland and Lavrov have crossed paths before, but never in such close quarters.
Meanwhile, the Canada-U.S. relationship has changed dramatically. Since Donald Trump took office, Ottawa launched an intensive charm offensive to ensure key aspects of the Canada-U.S. relationship, like trade, continue to thrive.
Despite those efforts, Canada has been on the receiving end of Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric.
One former Canadian diplomat is urging Freeland to hold frank discussions in private with her counterparts, to speak to some of these growing issues.
“Often the most important part of these are not what’s discussed in a public roundtable … it’s what takes place in the corridor, that’s what counts,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat.
Robertson expects Freeland to seek out a private discussion with Tillerson, to address the ongoing softwood lumber dispute. Canada is threatening multiple trade actions against the U.S. in response to new duties imposed on Canadian softwood.
“I think she’ll ask for a readout on where things are at,” Robertson said, adding Tillerson will likely want the same.
Russian hacking is another issue Robertson thinks should be raised if Freeland is able to secure a private discussion with Lavrov.
“We’ve got an election in Britain coming up, an election in Germany, where certainly all the signals are the Russians are playing their games again,” Robertson said. “So I think it is appropriate for Canada to raise this concern, and it’s appropriate to do it foreign minister to foreign minister.”
Freeland’s office said Canada will push several key issues at the meeting, including “advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” especially when it comes to addressing mental wellness, education and climate change.
According to a statement, Freeland will also look for a path to building a sustainable Arctic economy, and ways to encourage and preserve “science-based decision making.”
Whatever political tensions emerge at the summit, the government official said Canada is more than willing to co-operate with all Arctic nations on issues of mutual interest.