Not any more

Arctic policy priority No. 1: settle border disputes

In Canada on August 20, 2010 at 09:56

In a historic shift, Canada will make finding solutions to Arctic boundary disputes this country’s top foreign-policy priority in the Far North, according to a Foreign Affairs paper that will be released on Friday.

The Conservative government now wants swift and permanent solutions to border issues that this and previous governments had preferred to leave unresolved.

The goal is to transform the Arctic from a hotbed of jurisdictional conflicts into a stable, rules-based region, which Canada believes is the essential underpinning of economic and environmental progress.

The report, on which The Globe and Mail has been briefed by several sources, does not tackle the dispute over control of the Northwest Passage.

Nor does it make any commitments about when and how the Conservatives will finance expensive promises for an icebreaker and other concrete manifestations of Canada’s claim to sovereignty over the Arctic waters.

But the report does signal to other northern nations that this country wants to advance a shared agenda for the Far North rather than simply to assert territorial claims. The Foreign Affairs paper, in short, declares that Canada means what it said recently about resolving Arctic conflicts.

The United States and Canada disagree over the border in the Beaufort Sea; Canada and Denmark are in conflict over control of Hans Island, off the coast of Greenland; and all states bordering the Arctic are preparing their cases for ownership of its seabed. The Foreign Affairs paper declares the federal government will meet the 2013 deadline for presenting Canada’s claims to the ocean floor.

The federal government has also told the United States and Denmark that it wants to resolve its northern border disputes with them. Until recent months, this country ignored other nations’ requests to settle.

Once a front line of the Cold War, the high Arctic is increasingly the scene of fractious claims over continental shelves that could be sheltering oil and natural gas. Warming weather is increasing the prospects of a navigable Northwest Passage. Canada claims the waters within the Arctic archipelago are within its jurisdiction, which the United States and other nations don’t accept.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made asserting Canadian sovereignty over the north a key priority of his Conservative government, increasing the military presence in the region and making an Arctic excursion an annual event. He leaves on Monday for a five-day northern tour.

The report repeats previous Conservative commitments to protect the Arctic environment and to advance the economic and social agenda for Canada’s three territories, which have been swinging from boom to bust to emerging boom as fluctuating commodity prices affect the prospects of recent mineral discoveries.

Politically, the Conservatives are hoping to profit from increasing interest over Arctic sovereignty, which is perhaps another manifestation of an emerging noisier patriotism among many Canadians.

The Liberals are no less interested in exploiting southerners’ fascination with the Far North, which is why leader Michael Ignatieff has been visiting the region this summer as part of his national tour.

Both leaders clearly believe domestic politics can dovetail with international diplomacy as Canada confronts the shifting reality along its northern border – whatever, exactly, that border may be.


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