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Axworthy urges northerners to take action

Lloyd Axworthy is an action man. As prime minister Jean Chretien's foreign affairs minister in the 1990s, he placed Canada on the international stage by putting people first.

Lloyd Axworthy is an action man.

As prime minister Jean Chretien’s foreign affairs minister in the 1990s, he placed Canada on the international stage by putting people first.

“After living through the Rwandan genocide, we decided to use our military might to protect people rather than regimes,” he said.

To do this, the Winnipeg MP rewrote the rules.

Within 10 years, Axworthy’s new “responsibility-to-protect” guidelines had changed the face of international politics, first when NATO intervened in Kosovo, and more recently in Libya.

But these days, Axworthy’s pushing for change a little closer to home.

In Whitehorse last week, to honour the creation of the Northern Institute of Social Justice, Axworthy got right down to business.

“We’re not islands,” he said.

“And boundaries are artificial.

“Birds, animals and winds don’t carry passports.”

We exist in “an interconnected, intertwined, interrelated world,” he said.

And living in the North comes with added responsibility.

“What happens in the Arctic, happens to the world,” said Axworthy, citing the impacts of climate change and oil extraction.

And focusing on Canadian sovereignty isn’t going to cut it, he said.

Axworthy wants to see an international coalition of Arctic countries, working together to ensure the Arctic’s “landscape, lifestyles, animals and fish are not destroyed.

“This is not a time for tinkering and tweaking,” he said.

“We need to move from talk to action.

“And we need bold initiatives that fit into the broader context of what is going on.”

This is where the Yukon’s Northern Institute of Social Justice comes in.

Asked what the next steps for the fledgling institute should be, Axworthy cut to the chase.

Create a stewardship program to protect the boreal forest, he said.

It’s the second-biggest carbon sink in the world, after the Amazon, and “if we want to retard our carbon output, it’s crucial we protect it,” said Axworthy.

Speaking at the same event, former Canadian grand chief Phil Fontaine stressed the need to address First Nations poverty.

“It’s the single most important challenge facing Canada,” he said.

Running a boreal-forest stewardship program would kill two birds with one stone, said Axworthy.

It would respond to our environmental crisis by creating a green economy led by northern people and First Nations, he said.

This is how Axworthy’s mind works.

He sees a problem then acts on its solution.

As president of the University of Winnipeg, a position he took after leaving politics, Axworthy noticed that while First Nations made up a large percentage of the city’s population, there were very few aboriginal students in his university.

So he created an opportunities fund, and started touring the local high schools, pitching his program and getting young First Nations kids involved, offering them an education fund that grew with each goal they hit.

It didn’t take long until the number of First Nation students at University of Winnipeg spiked.

Axworthy’s next target was the school’s shoddy food service.

To get student’s invested, he set up a company that uses local fare to create the cafeteria menu, and offered the student cooks shares in the company.

“To take action, you need an idea of where you’re going,” he said.

And relying on conventional governments to make change no longer cuts it.

“Conventional governments can’t respond to things like climate change,” he said.

“It’s too all encompassing.”

That’s why Axworthy has started championing what he refers to as “humanities law.”

“We live in a state-centric system that focuses on the authority of nations,” he said.

“But humanities law is more focused on people, communities and coalitions who make decisions for themselves.”

This doesn’t exclude government, added Axworthy.

“It goes beyond it.”

The Arab Spring is an illustration of humanities law, as is the Occupy Wall Street movement, both of which give Axworthy hope.

“The world of international relations is changing to a world of civic societies, NGOs and think tanks,” he said.

“Instead of national security, we need to focus on human security.

“That is what these young people are trying to tell the rest of us - wake up.”

In the Yukon Teslin Tlingit Council Chief Peter Johnson is leading the way.

“We should draft a movement to have Chief Johnson become prime minister,” said Axworthy, after listening to the chief talk during the Northern Institute of Social Justice event.

Canada’s justice system was failing Johnson’s people, so, taking a page from Axworthy’s approach to international policy, the chief changed the rules.

Now the Teslin Tlingit have their own justice system.

“We have the ability to make change for our people, but we have to do it as a community,” said Johnson.

“We have to understand what we have in our own backyards.”

Johnson’s advice for the Northern Institute of Social Justice and for the audience was simple.

“Just do your part,” he said.

“Just do your part - on a very broad international stage,” added Axworthy.

For more information on the Northern Institute for Social Justice visit

Contact Genesee Keevil at