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Canada’s new leader takes on U.S. over Arctic

Canada's incoming prime minister used his first post-election press conference to tell the United States to mind its own business when it comes to territorial rights in the Arctic North.
The attack submarine USS Hampton is seen here in April 2004 having surfaced at the North Pole. U.S. submarines often navigate through waters claimed by Canada to get to the North Pole and other areas.
The attack submarine USS Hampton is seen here in April 2004 having surfaced at the North Pole. U.S. submarines often navigate through waters claimed by Canada to get to the North Pole and other areas.U.S. Navy file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Political pundits who declared that Stephen Harper, Canada’s next prime minister, would move quickly to patch up ties with the United States were having to regroup Friday after Harper used his first post-election press conference to tell the United States to mind its own business when it comes to territorial rights in the Arctic North.

Testing the notion that he would kowtow to the Bush administration, Harper, whose Conservative Party won general elections on Monday, said Thursday he would stand by a campaign pledge to increase Canada’s military presence in the Arctic and put three military icebreakers in the frigid waters of the Northwest Passage.

U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins had criticized the plan Wednesday, describing the Arctic passage as “neutral waters.”

“There’s no reason to create a problem that doesn’t exist,” Wilkins said during a panel discussion at the University of Western Ontario, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “We don’t recognize Canada’s claims to those waters. Most other countries do not recognize their claim.”

Vow to ‘defend our sovereignty’
No reporter brought up the ambassador’s views Thursday but Harper said at the end of his first formal news conference that he wanted to comment on them.

The Prime Minister-designate of Canada, Stephen Harper, speaks at a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, January 26, 2006. Harper on Thursday challenged the US denial of Canada's Arctic claims in his first public appearance since his Conservatives won a general election. AFP PHOTO/Patrick DOYLE (Photo credit should read PATRICK DOYLE/AFP/Getty Images)Patrick Doyle / AFP

“The United States defends its sovereignty; the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty,” Harper said. “It is the Canadian people that we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States.”

Harper’s surprising salvo was likely intended as a message to those in the Bush administration who might be cheering the election of a Conservative government and view Harper as a pushover when it comes to prickly U.S.-Canadian relations.

Arctic sovereignty has been a sensitive subject for decades, with U.S. Navy submarines and ships entering northern waters without asking permission. Ottawa has generally turned a blind eye to the United States’ sending ships through the area.

Canadian media reported last month that a U.S. nuclear submarine traveled secretly through Canadian Arctic waters in November on its way to the North Pole.

The Northwest Passage runs from the Atlantic through the Arctic to the Pacific.

More ships likely
Global warming is melting the passage — which is only navigable during a slim window in the summer — and exposing unexplored fishing stocks and an attractive shipping route. Commercial ships can shave off some 2,480 miles off the trip from Europe to Asia compared with the current routes through the Panama Canal.

Harper said during a campaign speech in December he would dramatically increase Canada’s military presence in the Arctic North. He intends to construct and deploy three new armed icebreaking ships and construct a $1.7 billion deep-water port and an underwater network of “listening posts.”

“The single most important duty of the federal government is to protect and defend our national sovereignty,” Harper said in that speech. “There are new and disturbing reports of American nuclear submarines passing though Canadian waters without obtaining the permission of, or even notifying, the Canadian government.”

Military action unclear
Harper has not said whether he would order military action if the ships or port detected an unauthorized submarine in Arctic waters.

Harper, meanwhile, said he had a friendly conversation with President Bush on Wednesday but had not fixed a date for their first meeting. He said he had also received calls from other major allies, including Mexican President Vicente Fox, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.