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Arctic sovereignty not under threat despite U.S., European policies

Canada's Arctic sovereignty is not under increased threat despite recent forthright statements from the United States and the European Union spelling out their interests in the region, says Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

Canada's Arctic sovereignty is not under increased threat despite recent forthright statements from the United States and the European Union spelling out their interests in the region, says Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

But at least one northern leader is urging Ottawa to move faster to develop the North before Canadian goals are swamped by growing international interest in its resources and shipping routes.

"Here in Canada, we better pay attention and step up," Northwest Territories Premier Floyd Roland said Tuesday before heading off to a first ministers meeting in Ottawa later this week.

"We know we need to see an economy being developed."

On Monday, in one of his last acts as U.S. president, George W. Bush released a 10-page Arctic policy spelling out American priorities.

Bush said his country's presence in the North should grow. He repeated American claims that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway and emphasized the need for his country to have access to the region's untapped energy resources.

Last November, the European Union released its own discussion paper in which it said that rules for shipping, fishing and drilling in the North should be established by international agencies, not just the states with Arctic coastlines.

But on Tuesday Cannon said Canada's claims to the Arctic continue to be widely recognized internationally. For example, American ships continue to ask Canada's permission before entering Arctic waters, he said.

"There's no doubt in our mind and no doubt in the mind of the other (Arctic nations) that Canada has sovereignty over the land and sea.

"I don't have any signal from the new (Barack Obama) administration as to any change in direction."

Obama will not necessarily be bound by the Bush policy, said Cannon, although Arctic experts have said there's little in it that Obama would be likely to disagree with.

Experts have also said Canada needs to step up its own diplomatic efforts before other counties assume control over the Arctic agenda.

But Cannon said Canada is already talking with the EU about the Arctic. And over the next several months he plans to meet with all other members of the Arctic Council (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, the U.S. and Russia) to emphasize Canada's position.

The minister said Canada already has its own Arctic northern strategy defined in the 2007 throne speech.

Since then, he said, the government has promised to strengthen Arctic military infrastructure. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tories have also moved to increase the jurisdiction of Canadian environmental law over northern waters and made mandatory registering with the Canadian Coast Guard.

That's all well and good, said Roland, but sovereignty depends as much on sustainable communities and viable economies as boots on the ground or icebreakers in the water.

"It's one thing to monitor it and count ships that may pass through it. But it's better if we put in place actual development."

Roland has long argued infrastructure such as a highway linking the Arctic coast with southern Canada and a natural gas pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley would go a long way toward binding the North to the rest of the country.

While she wasn't surprised by anything in the American policy paper, Nunavut Premier Eva Arreak agreed it should provoke a response from Canada.

"This (U.S.) policy proves that Canada must invest in Arctic sovereignty and northerners," she said. "I hope this (document) will renew (Ottawa's) energy to spend more time on Arctic sovereignty."

Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie praised the Harper government's approach to the Arctic.

"We feel finally that we have a federal government after many, many years, that actually has some interest in the North," he said.

However, he acknowledged that the Yukon already has many of the types of facilities that the N.W.T. is fighting for.

The Conservatives have promised civilian projects such as a state-of-the-art icebreaker and a commercial harbour in the Nunavut community of Pangnirtung. Those developments - as well as the military spending - have yet to materialize.

Cannon said Canada's plans and positions are clear enough to its partners without having to produce a policy paper.

"I don't think it's a question of releasing documents," said Cannon.

"The prime minister has stated clearly our intentions in the Arctic. We want to be able to make the Arctic our masterpiece in foreign policy."

But Roland still wants a concrete plan.

"I would hope they're ready to release something soon. There are resources at stake there and we know that internationally they're looking to divide up the Arctic seabed and we need to have our policy or program in place."

 
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