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Doug Saunders

We see our Arctic as a colony Add to ...

Here above the Arctic Circle in the bracing cold, the talk in bars and saunas is entirely devoted to events in balmy Vancouver.

Yes, Laplanders tell me over reindeer-meat lunches, they've made elaborate plans to stay up all night to watch the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games, and to see how NHL stars Miikka Kiprusoff and Sami Salo fare with the Finnish Olympic hockey team.

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But they're even more excited about the prospects of cross-country skiers Aino-Kaisa Saarinen and Virpi Kuitunen, household names who make the front pages in non-Olympic years, and ski jumper Janne Ahonen, who is probably Finland's best-known and most-respected sports figure.

People here don't suddenly rediscover obscure events such as luge and biathlon every four years: Those activities, like all things Arctic and northern, are intimate parts of daily life, as they are for Norwegians, Swedes and Russians.

Canadians are somewhat surprised every few years to find themselves included in a tightly knit Nordic community that commands little attention the rest of the time.

We are trying, in a spate of public seal-munching, inukshuk -displaying and maritime missions into our thawing northern passages, to look more northern. The people who actually make their lives in the Far North are not yet convinced, although our new commitment to our polar parts is certainly welcomed.

Last year, the Harper government launched its Northern Strategy, a bold package of military and development measures, along with cultural and communications initiatives, to build Canada's legal and public identity as a "northern power." It reversed a century of efforts to convince the world that the dog-sledding, ice-fishing image of Canada is a myth.

It also offers the promise of doing something, finally, to improve the living conditions and economic opportunities of the Inuit, and perhaps to bring an end to their land-claim odyssey. And the dreadful infrastructure of our tiny settlements may finally get an upgrade.

We played a key role in founding, in 1996, the Arctic Council, a surprisingly successful intergovernmental body that has managed to resolve, by unanimous agreement, all but the most petty of the territorial disagreements between the eight countries with land above the Arctic Circle. Talk of a "war for the North" is purely political hyperbole.

But our approach has become less co-operative, and the countries that reside in the Arctic are being rubbed the wrong way. In March, the five states that border the Arctic Ocean - Canada, Norway, the U.S., Russia and Denmark - will gather in Gatineau to divide up the undersea resources. The meeting will exclude the Arctic Council and the Inuit.

"Feelings in Finland are confused," says Markku Heikkilä, a well-known Arctic author and official at the University of Lapland. "This will literally ruin the Arctic Council." Canada's policies appear, to the more collegial Nordic states, to be devoted singularly to domestic energy.

We own the Arctic but, unlike most of our northern neighbours, we are not Arctic. Rovaniemi is a serious city of 60,000 people, with a major university, a large airport and important ties to the mainstream of Finnish life. Like the Arctic cities of Tromso, Norway (60,000) and Murmansk, Russia (325,000), it's a major centre of business, learning and tourism.

So when Canada tried to impress the world's finance ministers and media with its Arctic identity by holding a summit in Iqaluit, a remote and somewhat inaccessible town of 7,000 just below the Arctic Circle in Nunavut, it didn't completely work. "It looked like the Canadians had just arrived there - they didn't seem to know the place any better than we did," one European official told me.

What those leaders realized, and what Canadians instinctively know, is that we relate to the Arctic not as a part of our identity or culture or traditional economy, but as a foreign, faraway land we happen to control. The Far North is, in short, our colony.

Our relationship to the Arctic is much more like that of the Danes, an Arctic people by merit of owning Greenland - an Inuit-majority place that was granted economic autonomy last year. We can get to New Delhi from Ottawa or Toronto more easily, and do so more often, than to Iqaluit.

The discovery of northern resource wealth, and the fear that others may lay claim to it, has suddenly turned us into the better sort of colonial masters: We're spending some money, and caring about the people there.

But our commitment to the North does look a lot like our commitment to the two-man luge: When it matters to us, we pay attention. We own it, but it isn't us.

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