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A Conservative government would build three icebreakers and arm them as part of an Arctic strategy to protect Canadian sovereignty, Stephen Harper said yesterday.

The Tory Leader said that as prime minister, he would make it clear, even to the United States, that naval ships could not travel the Northwest Passage without his government's permission.

The icebreakers, which would be made in Canada and could go through six metres of ice, and the docking facility would cost $2-billion over eight or nine years. The first would be ready by the end of a five-year Tory mandate, said the party's defence critic, Gordon O'Connor.

The "Canada First" northern strategy would also increase the country's military presence in the Arctic, placing 500 troops in the Iqaluit area and building a new military and civilian deep-water docking facility.

The Tories would also let the military use underwater listening posts to track foreign submarines and ships. Last week, Mr. Harper promised a Conservative government would create a new airborne battalion based in Trenton, Ont. It would provide emergency response, such as dealing with a jumbo-jet crash.

The Arctic initiative is part of a $5.3-billion boost in defence spending over five years that Mr. Harper promised last week in Trenton.

"It all comes down to sovereignty," he said at a news conference in Winnipeg yesterday. ". . . Sovereignty is something you use it or you lose it."

He refused to say what action he would take against a country that trespassed in Canadian waters.

He also would not indicate what weapons the icebreakers would have, saying only that the vessels would "give some weight" to Canada's presence in the Arctic.

"It's once again not a matter waving your arms like a helicopter," he said. "You actually have to have the military presence that says you believe in your claims and that you are prepared to treat your land and your water as your own sovereign territory."

News reports have said that a U.S. submarine recently sailed through the Northwest Passage.

"Even the United States, an allied government, is currently making incursions into our territorial waters without even notifying us, let alone seeking permission," Mr. Harper said, adding that other countries, such as Russia, Denmark and Britain have sailed through the area without asking permission.

"Obviously, the first thing we have to have is the capacity to know who is in our waters," Mr. Harper said. "We obviously want and expect foreign countries to tell us when they're in our waters. They are currently not doing that."

He said that an "aggressive approach" would persuade countries to respect Canadian sovereignty.

Liberal Leader Paul Martin attacked Mr. Harper's Arctic plan at great length yesterday, saying it appears the Tory Leader crafted it at the last minute.

In an interview with Radio-Canada, Mr. Martin dodged a question about whether the U.S. had in fact sailed a submarine through Canada's Arctic waters, then conceded he does not know.

"Up to now, I have not had a confirmation," he said.

Mr. Martin said in Gatineau that his own government's Arctic strategy has already included greater Arctic surveillance and military expeditions to Nunavut and Hans Island. He also chided Mr. Harper for saying he would require that foreign vessels notify Canada before entering Canadian waters.

"Guess what? That is the status quo. We've got that agreement with the United States and other countries. Nobody comes into Canada's waters without notification," he said.

He accused Mr. Harper of failing to provide details on what size of icebreakers he would buy, while dismissing the Conservatives' call for underwater listening devices.

"The fact is that they are incredibly expensive and I think Mr. Harper has clearly not done his costing," he said.

The defence strategy was Mr. Harper's last major announcement before Christmas after a stretch of policy proposals including a two-percentage-point cut to the GST and payments to parents for child care. Mr. Harper will celebrate Christmas in Calgary, but is expected to be touring ridings in British Columbia right after Boxing Day.

He said in an interview yesterday that he doesn't think he could "sit still for eight days." His national campaign will resume just after New Year's Day.

Liberal Defence Minister Bill Graham dismissed the icebreaker plan as an expensive response to a non-existent military threat.

Mr. Graham said he does not believe the Americans are secretly sending nuclear-powered submarines through Canadian waters.

A protocol is in place by which the Americans notify Ottawa when their subs want to transit Canadian waters, Mr. Graham said in an interview. "They would have told us."

He said the Liberal government has taken steps to protect northern sovereignty with satellite surveillance.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who on Wednesday night in Yellowknife said Ottawa needs to do far more to protect its sovereignty in the Arctic, expressed cautious support for the Tory plan.

"We have indeed recommended that sovereignty does need more protection [in the Arctic] including a physical presence," he said.

With reports from Jeff Sallot,

Bill Curry, Michael Den Tandt

and Campbell Clark