Making Sure Indigenous Voices are Heard

Older than the Arctic Council, the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat (IPS) has been orchestrating the input of Indigenous peoples on Arctic issues for more than 20 years, says Elle Merete Omma, the IPS executive secretary.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Elle Merete Omma from the Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat.Flickr/Arctic Council (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat (IPS) was established in 1994 to assist with the contributions of the Indigenous organizations that were observers to the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy – the precursor to the Arctic Council. “I tend to say that Indigenous peoples were ahead of their time,” says Elle Merete Omma, the executive secretary for the IPS.

At a pair of workshops, the IPS developed recommendations for the use of Indigenous knowledge in the work of the Arctic Council called the Ottawa Traditional Knowledge Principles. “It is not endorsed by the Arctic Council, but it is an excellent example of what the six organizations can do if they get an opportunity to work together,” she says.

Omma was elected to her position in 2014. With a background in law, she has worked on Indigenous issues throughout her career, including for Norway’s Department of Sami and Minority Affairs and with the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The IPS assists the Permanent Participants to be as strong as possible within the Arctic Council, says Omma. That can take on many forms: from finding funding to showcasing the contributions of Indigenous peoples within the Arctic Council, as well as providing translation and technical assistance.

Arctic Deeply spoke with Omma to understand better the role of the IPS and the priorities of the Permanent Participants.

Arctic Deeply: What tops the list of concerns for the Permanent Participants?

Elle Merete Omma was elected as the executive secretary for the Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat in 2014. (Flickr/Arctic Council (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Elle Merete Omma was elected as the executive secretary for the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat in 2014. (Flickr/Arctic Council (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Elle Merete Omma: There is not one Indigenous voice representing the Arctic, but six Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council with different priorities and different needs. But there is something I see in common to most of them: the right to be a rights holder in the Arctic. They are also concerned about climate change, of course, mental health and food security. Access to food is something that most of them are concerned with.

Arctic Deeply: How have Permanent Participants become more involved in decision-making at the Arctic Council over time?

Omma: All the Permanent Participants are concerned that traditional and local knowledge should be included in all the projects run by the Arctic Council. There is a set of procedural guidelines on how to include traditional knowledge at an earlier stage. Both Western science and traditional knowledge should be included to get the best possible results. But there are a lot of projects going on and the Indigenous peoples lack funding to be able to participate in all processes going on in the Arctic Council. Even though we’ve seen progress in the procedural guidelines, there still needs to be progress in the implementation of it.

Arctic Deeply: The IPS moved its office from Copenhagen to Tromsø earlier this year. How have things changed?

Omma: From my perspective, it makes sense to be part of a bigger team. It gives us access to information that we can provide to the Indigenous peoples’ organizations. The Arctic Council secretariat is a much bigger unit than the IPS, so it helps to be in the same office. But at the same time, it is important to underline that the IPS is an independent entity, controlled by the Indigenous peoples’ organizations and by the governing board.

Arctic Deeply: The Permanent Participants are not voting members of the Arctic Council, which makes their early – and continued – participation in discussions important, but this can be expensive. How are these activities supported?

Omma: All the Permanent Participants have bilateral agreements with their Arctic states. Funding is more than just travel costs; it is about the ability to participate in a meaningful way in the work of the Arctic Council. I think, as it is now, many of the Permanent Participants prioritize to come to the meetings of the Senior Arctic Officials (SAO). They participate in the political level of the Arctic Council, and because of the financial constraints that they have, they don’t participate in all the working groups, which is a pity, because that is where all the work is done.

There are discussions going on now on how to improve this participation. One of the core projects is to establish a Permanent Participant funding mechanism. We just had a meeting in Helsinki last week, where we talked about how we can establish this and what it would look like. At the moment it will address two parts, both core funding to keep the lights on in the offices of the Permanent Participants, but also some project funding. The idea is that we should establish a mechanism where the Permanent Participants can fund the projects they want to develop within the Arctic Council and find partners as well.

Arctic Deeply: What else is on the horizon?

Omma: The IPS is a good instrument for the Permanent Participants. It can help them build their capacity. It is one of very few international organizations controlled by Indigenous peoples and, at the same time, we have access to one of the most interesting international organizations. There is great potential.

It would be nice if we can develop IPS to become some sort of diplomatic schooling for Indigenous peoples. From my point of view, all the civil servants that come to the SAO level, they are trained diplomats. If IPS can play a role in helping the PPs gain the same type of knowledge that would be great. An internship will be part of that. We have developed a program with Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. An intern will take courses in international diplomacy and politics, followed by two or three months at the IPS office, then to the University of the Arctic office in Rovaniemi, Finland. They will return to university to finalize their course and then go into their local communities to teach what they have learned.

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