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Harper plays down threat to Arctic sovereignty

PM's response to U.S. policy in Far North disappoints NWT Premier, who says Canada must actively protect resource-rich area

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dismissed concerns that a Cold War with the United States is about to erupt over a new U.S. policy that boldly challenges Canada's Arctic sovereignty claims in the frozen, resource-rich region.

"We've had some long-standing disagreements with the United States on some of these things, but we've managed to contain these disagreements," Mr. Harper told a Calgary radio show yesterday. "I think we can manage this. ... But obviously we will always speak up when the United States questions our sovereignty."

Northwest Territories Premier Floyd Roland said the increased U.S. interest in the region is of deep concern and the federal government should respond with more than rhetoric.

Mr. Roland said too much is at stake in the Far North, and Ottawa must act decisively to ensure the country protects its economic and political interests there by creating more jobs and investing in infrastructure.

"Let's not lose it for the sake of being nice," he said during a telephone interview from Yellowknife. "Canada can no longer afford to maintain a passive approach to our northern interests."

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration released the controversial new policy on Monday, just days before president-elect Barack Obama is scheduled to take office.

The document reasserts the Americans' long-held claim that the fabled Northwest Passage is an international waterway, open to all. Canada argues that the route is an internal waterway.

The policy, which hasn't been updated since 1994, also states that the United States should develop a greater presence in the Arctic for security reasons, as well as resolve outstanding border disputes, including one with Canada in the Beaufort Sea, so it can tap into the region's vast natural resources.

"The United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests," the directive states.

The document comes weeks after the European Union released a report on the Arctic. It recommended that international agencies be allowed to help manage it by establishing rules for activities such as drilling and shipping oil in the region.

Rob Huebert, an Arctic sovereignty expert and associate director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, said the Canadian government shouldn't ignore or play down these two documents.

He said Mr. Bush's directive has effectively "thrown a grenade into Canada-U.S. relations" and that it will be interesting to see what the new president does with it.

"This is a very blunt statement ... they didn't play any political niceties here."

Ken Coates, an expert on northern Canadian history and the dean of arts at the University of Waterloo, said it was wise for Mr. Harper not to "pick a fight" with Washington on this issue.

He views the directive as just more "chest-thumping" and "political positioning" by the Americans on Arctic sovereignty, an issue that has sparked diplomatic disputes between the two nations for years.

Even so, Prof. Coates expects that Mr. Harper will raise the issue with Washington because he's long considered Arctic sovereignty and northern development a major priority for his Conservative government.

Historically, federal government action in the Arctic has been mainly symbolic or reactive.

However, in recent years, climate change has begun to transform the North. As ice melts at alarming rates, traffic of all types has increased as the area becomes more accessible and attractive to other countries, including Russia, eyeing new and faster shipping routes and massive natural resource deposits such as oil and gas.

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