Stephen Harper says the Arctic should be the domain of countries with territory there and he would oppose efforts to grant influence to outsiders in a region attracting growing global attention amid climate change and the hunt for resource riches.
Canada is the current chair of the Arctic Council, an international forum for co-operation in the region that has taken on a fresh importance as countries jockey for position and economic opportunities in the North on everything from offshore petroleum deposits to faster shipping routes.
Mr. Harper said he has had misgivings about the rush of countries and other players to join the club as observers.
“It was just becoming literally everybody in the world wanted to be in the Arctic Council,” the Prime Minister said in an interview in his Langevin Block office in Ottawa. (Read the interview transcript)
Mr. Harper, who has made Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic a central feature of his eight-year tenure, sat down to talk to The Globe and Mail about the issue. A transcript of the conversation will be published on Saturday.
Full membership, including voting rights, in the Arctic Council is restricted to eight countries with territory in the region, but this group is now outnumbered by 12 other states that have won observer status and can attend meetings. Just last year, China, an ascendant global power, was among those granted observer status – as were India, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Singapore.
Mr. Harper said he was not comfortable with the expansion of the council to include observers, which began before he took power in 2006.
“To be blunt about it, I think, frankly, this had already gone too far before we became government, but given that’s the precedent that’s been established, you know, we’re prepared to have a significant number of observers as long as their presence doesn’t override or impede upon the deliberations of the permanent members,” he said.
He is adamant the council cannot affect Canada’s autonomy in the Arctic. “Let me be absolutely clear on this: Canada’s participation in the Arctic Council is predicated on the notion that this is an association of sovereign states … that in no way, impinges upon our sovereignty, over our own territory.”
Mr. Harper has styled himself a hawk on Canadian sovereignty in the North and has made it clear he feels this country’s birthright goes beyond its land mass and right up to the geographic North Pole. In December, his government served notice it would claim the North Pole as part of an international bid for seabed riches in the Arctic. The Globe and Mail reported that this came after a proposed submission to the United Nations presented to the government by Canadian bureaucrats failed to include the Pole.
Asked whether he agrees with arguments that the Arctic should be managed by all countries, as Antarctica is, Mr. Harper dismissed the idea.
“The Antarctic model is absolutely and completely unacceptable to the government of Canada and to the people of Canada,” he said. “We want to make sure that [this] kind of thinking is not part of any … department of the government of Canada.”
The Arctic Ocean, to the extent it is international waters, will require a degree of co-operation between neighbours, the Prime Minister said.
He is dead set against the idea “the Arctic should be internationalized” – an opinion he said has taken root in “some academic and bureaucratic circles.”
Mr. Harper added he believes critics of his sovereignty agenda are sometimes at odds with him because they “actually don’t support the notion of sovereignty in this part of this world.”