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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

On either side of the North Pole there are two political leaders who understand its political value.

Stephen Harper and Vladimir Putin also share a vision of their countries as resource powers that spurs their interest in the vast Arctic. But there's no doubt they like to use the Far North, and claims to it, as a political prop.

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Mr. Putin, in a Tuesday meeting broadcast on Russian television, directed his Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, to beef up military units, and military infrastructure, in the Arctic. Because after all, Russian presidents have always believed the best place to deliver instructions on national-security priorities and military deployments is on TV.

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, staged a last-minute intervention to scrap the claim to Arctic seabed that government scientists and bureaucrats have been working on for years, demanding that they submit a bigger claim that includes the North Pole. So Canada basically blew the Dec. 6 deadline for its claim, sending a note saying reserving the right to claim a vast swath later and back it up with science.

If there's any doubt there's a healthy dollop of politics involved, consider the Conservative response when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would defer to scientists on the claims. The Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary, MP Paul Calandra, accused Mr. Trudeau of being soft on Santa.

"We know that the Liberals do not think that the North Pole or Santa Claus are in Canada. We do," Mr. Calandra said in the Commons. "We are going to make sure that we protect them as best we can."

The curious thing, however, is that if Mr. Harper considers claiming the North Pole a vital national interest, he was tardy in sending officials back to the drawing board. Government scientists and lawyers have for years been working for years on the claim, and Mr. Harper could have stepped in a year or two ago.

The claims are submitted to a UN commission that reviews whether they are backed up by science and international law. Canada agreed in 2008 that this was the process to follow. But the commission won't settle disputes, so a claim for the North Pole would have to be settled by some kind of negotiation or arbitration with Russia and Denmark.

Curiouser still because the North Pole isn't one of those rich plots of exploitable resources, or a valuable shipping lane. It's in the middle of a deep, dark, ice-covered ocean.

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Arctic expert Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, said Mr. Harper's lawyers and scientists will have told him the Pole isn't Canadian. Canada's claims in the area, like Denmark's, are based on the assertion that an underwater formation called the Lomonosov ridge is a natural extension of Ellesmere Island and Greenland – but the Pole is on the Danish side of the ridge, Mr. Byers said. Canada will get a lot of seabed, just not the pole.

"The North Pole is probably Danish and is most certainly not Canadian," he said.

Perhaps Mr. Calandra's Question Period remark was revealing. Perhaps Mr. Harper didn't like the politics of being the PM who dropped claims to the Pole, and with it, the image of Santa's workshop flying a Canadian flag.

That, of course, doesn't mean there isn't a scramble to assert Arctic sovereignty, and claim what are believed to be its vast resources – though Mr. Byers said most such claims can be settled by science and international law. Canada has real interests in the Arctic, as does Russia. But sometimes there's more politics than policy.

Mr. Putin's remarks on Tuesday, ordering more military in the Arctic, seems to fit the scramble. Russia has taken an assertive attitude to claiming the Northern Sea Route, the shipping lane on its side of the pole – while the U.S. insists that it, like the Northwest Passage in Canada's north, is an international strait. Arctic nations are beefing up resources to keep watch on their northern territories.

Some, like University of Calgary Arctic professor Rob Huebert, believe Mr. Putin's call for Arctic defence isn't about the Arctic, but just cover for northward military moves that help protect its nuclear deterrent, by deploying submarines and air defences in its northwest.

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But Mr. Putin's suggestion last week that Russia needs to protect its Arctic against a potential U.S. threat, and his made-for-TV comments Tuesday, was a political statement. Russia frankly can't afford full-scale military competition for the Arctic. Its economy is just a little bigger than Canada's; its military budget is 13 per cent of what the U.S. spends.

In Russia, sabre-rattling over Arctic sovereignty is good domestic politics, and, Mr. Byers notes, "central to Putin's image as action man of the north." It seems likely that, just as a Russian submarine dropped the Russian flag at the North Pole in 2007, Mr. Putin is waving the flag now. In belatedly redrawing Canada's claim, Mr. Harper, is waving the flag, too. Giving up Santa's workshop just before Christmas isn't good politics.

Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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