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Embracing the Arctic

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Ottawa in January might not be everyone's dream destination, but for 14 UW students and two visiting Inuit students taking a course on Arctic governance, it was the place to be. 

They walked miles in blizzard conditions. They ate musk oxen and caribou. They hobnobbed with Inuit leaders and met with diplomats at more than half a dozen embassies. And they came away with an understanding of Arctic issues that could never be gleaned from lectures or textbooks. 

Students in snowstorm, with Canadian flag.

Students braved blizzard conditions in Ottawa, Canada to make it to their appointments with Arctic leaders. Here they pose between meetings.

The course was part of the Jackson School's Task Force Program, which provides a capstone experience for international studies majors. Each task force—eight were offered this year— tackles a current policy issue. Students research the issue thoroughly, work together to develop a policy position, write a detailed report supporting their recommendations, and present their findings to an outside evaluator.

"By senior year, students can bring a lot of what they've learned in other classes and apply it to a real live policy challenge," says Sara Curran, associate professor of international studies and chair of the Jackson School's International Studies Program. "They discover that it's a messy political world and the reality of making something happen is different than theory. But they also see that the analytical skills they've gained give them the capacity to make an effective argument." 

Students in the Arctic Governance Task Force quickly discovered that the frigid North is a fascinating study in foreign policy. The region has garnered international attention due to the natural resources on its seafloor, the potential for new shipping routes, and concerns over the effect of global warming on the Arctic environment. Complicating matters is the dynamic between the eight Arctic nations, whose interactions in these areas are dominated by the UN Law of the Sea. 

Nadine Fabbi, associate director of JSIS's Canadian Studies Program, co-led the task force with Vincent Gallucci, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences in the College of the Environment. They organized the Ottawa trip as an opportunity for students to gather information for their policy report. During a packed week of meetings (and long trudges through snow), students spoke with key players in Arctic policy, including ambassadors, academics, attorneys, trade specialists, policy analysts, and leaders of the Arctic's indigenous Inuit people. 

"We wanted the students to hear, from the source, what key policymakers are doing right now," says Fabbi. "For example, at the Icelandic Embassy, the ambassador gave us a preview of Iceland's Arctic policy—even though it has not yet been approved by Parliament." The visits also demonstrated to the students, who will soon embark on their own careers, that there are many avenues for working in foreign policy. 

From left, Nadine Fabbi poses in front  of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa  with task force participants Lisa  Koperqualuk and Kitty Gordon, both  with the Makivik Corporation.

From left, Nadine Fabbi poses in front of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa with task force participants Lisa Koperqualuk and Kitty Gordon, both with the Makivik Corporation.

"Engaging with leaders, experts, and ambassadors about a subject that—two months ago—I knew nothing about was both frightening and exhilarating," recalls participant John Bryan. "By the end of the week, I had forgotten my mere undergraduate status and had accepted my role of investigative researcher."

To help students ace that investigative role, the instructors spoke with them about asking informed questions. Gallucci and Fabbi felt such preparation was important, given the stature of the experts the students were meeting. "If you tried to organize these meetings in Washington, DC, you'd be laughed out of the Beltway," says Gallucci. "But in Ottawa, there's a receptivity to students, to the US, and to our interest in Canada's northern boundaries. It really speaks to the various groups' desire to have their position heard." 

The UW students also had unparalleled access to the Inuit community, meeting with key staff at organizations like the Makivik Corporation, the Inuit organization for Arctic Québec. The class also welcomed two participants from the Makivik Corporation as team members during their stay in Ottawa. The women roomed with the UW students, joined them for all meetings, and each prepared a chapter of the group's Task Force report. 

A highlight of the trip was the 40th Anniversary celebration of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK, the national voice of the Inuit people), which the students attended. After chatting with Inuit leaders they'd learned about in class and through their readings, they glowed as if they'd met rock stars. 

After returning from Ottawa, the class began the arduous task of writing their policy recommendations. Students worked in teams to prepare assigned sections; editors assembled the final report and prepared the executive summary and conclusions. The hefty document—nearly 200 pages—was sent to Task Force evaluator Julia Gourley, US chief representative to the Arctic Council. A week later, Gourley flew from Washington, DC to Seattle for the students' oral presentation, at which she asked probing questions about their recommendations. 

"Everything from day one is focused on the written document that the students will produce at the end and its presentation to a prestigious person with expertise in the area," explains Gallucci. "That influenced the kinds of questions the students asked in Ottawa. It becomes about more than just getting a good grade. There's a sense of not wanting to let the group down."

Looking back, students use words like "amazing" and "incredible" to describe the Ottawa trip and the Task Force experience. Some hail it as the highlight of their undergraduate career. A few have been inspired to change their future plans.

"When they started the course, no one had expertise in this area," says Fabbi. "Now at least two of the students are looking at graduate programs in Arctic Studies."

The Arctic Governance Task Force was possible through support from the Government of Canada, JSIS's Hellman Fund and Hamilton Endowment, as well as grants from Canadian and Global Studies Centers' Department of Education (Title VI) grants.