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Wearing a wolfskin parka, Simon Nattaq poses for a portrait outside Iqaluit, Nunavut where he lives with his family. (Fred Lum/FRED LUM/ GLOBE AND MAIL)
Wearing a wolfskin parka, Simon Nattaq poses for a portrait outside Iqaluit, Nunavut where he lives with his family. (Fred Lum/FRED LUM/ GLOBE AND MAIL)

In the Arctic, Canada willing to fight to keep the true north free Add to ...

When a few dozen Danish tourists erected a cairn with their native flags on hotly contested Hans Island last summer, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sounded a diplomatic note: "Hans Island is a one-kilometre square rock in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, so I'm not sure it would have made for much of a tour."

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While such flag-planting gestures once prompted chest-thumping, Mr. Harper's government has recently embraced diplomatic solutions rather than the "use it or lose it" approach he took four years ago.

Despite Ottawa's conciliatory approach toward the mineral and fuel-rich Arctic region, however, Canadians have adopted a confrontational stance.

A new opinion poll finds that Canadians are generally far less receptive to negotiation and compromises on disputes than their American neighbours. More than 40 per cent of Canadians said the country should pursue a firm line in defending its sections of the North, compared to just 10 per cent of Americans.

The international survey - conducted by EKOS Research for the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation - found that a majority of Canadians see Arctic sovereignty as the country's top foreign-policy priority; they also believe military resources should be shifted to the North, even if it means taking them away from global conflicts. The findings are based on a poll of more than 9,000 people in the eight northern countries. Most of those respondents took a more conciliatory approach than Canadians, and favoured Scandinavian nations as negotiation partners over Canada.

Unlike his Liberal predecessors, Mr. Harper has made the Arctic a major political platform, taking every opportunity to remind Canadians that his government is determined to defend this country's sovereignty in the Far North. The poll's findings would suggest that Canadians have embraced his rhetoric.

"It is something that allows him to play the nationalism card, particularly since it resonates with the population," said Brian MacDonald, a senior defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations. "There's been a long-term national romance with the Arctic."

In addition to Hans Island, which Canada and Denmark both claim, Canada has a border dispute with the United States in the Beaufort Sea, which is believed to hold a trove of natural resources.

Canada also claims the Northwest Passage as Canadian territory, in contrast to the United States and most other countries who argue that their ships are entitled to "innocent passage" through the Arctic archipelago.

Last fall, Canada announced it had amassed sufficient scientific evidence to back a claim for the coveted Lomonosov Ridge, of which Russia also asserts ownership. The Russians believe the underwater mountain range contains billions of tonnes of fuel deposits.

With a melting ice cap, tensions over shipping and exploration rights have escalated over the past decade. "That reality is leading to and will lead to much more activity in Canada's North and indeed the Arctic everywhere," said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia professor and author of Who Owns the Arctic?

Follow on Twitter: @jillsmahoney

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