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A Foreign Affairs policy paper acknowledges it will probably be a decade before Canada has its own polar icebreaker. (Jonathan Hayward/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
A Foreign Affairs policy paper acknowledges it will probably be a decade before Canada has its own polar icebreaker. (Jonathan Hayward/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Canada's troubled Arctic waters Add to ...

Canada's new willingness to resolve boundary disputes in the Arctic has its own limits.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear on Friday that his Conservative government will not cede sovereignty for the sake of tidy borders.

"The No. 1 priority of our northern strategy is the promotion and protection of Canadian sovereignty in the North," he said in Charlottetown. "That is what Canadians want us to do; that is what we will continue to do."

As the Prime Minister prepared for his fifth annual northern tour, which begins Monday in Churchill and ends next Friday in Whitehorse, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon released a 27-page paper revealing a new Canadian willingness to work toward "a stable region with clearly defined boundaries," as the minister put it at Friday's press conference.

This contrasts sharply with Canada's traditional approach, which was to (a) stake a claim and then (b) refuse to talk about it. With the Arctic warming and oil exploration companies salivating, borders increasingly need to become borders.

The tension between a steadfast commitment to protecting Canada's claims in the North and a practical understanding that negotiations involve compromise will tug at this government over the coming years, as the Arctic moves toward the top of the country's foreign policy priorities.

The Russians are claiming the seabed as far as the North Pole; the Americans (among others) don't recognize Canada's claims over the increasingly navigable Northwest Passage; wars have been fought over specks no larger than Hans Island, which both Denmark and Canada claim. (Although both nations are bending over backward to co-operate on managing the issue.)

The best way to assert sovereignty is to be in the place you claim as yours. But the Conservatives are also determined to balance the budget sooner rather than later. The Foreign Affairs policy paper acknowledged it will probably be a decade before Canada has its own polar icebreaker.

Talk is cheap, though, and talk could lead to new agreements on who owns what in the Far North. Herewith, a survey of the Arctic's troubled waters, and what might be done to calm them.

Key: solid line - agreed border; dotted line - median line; shaded areas: other disputed areas

1. Beaufort Sea

Who's involved: Canada v. United States

The problem: The two countries use different and conflicting methods to calculate the Canada-U.S. boundary in the Beaufort Sea.

The fix: The Americans want to settle, and Canada is now willing as well. Knowing more about the continental shelf would help. Currently, a Canadian and a U.S. vessel are working together "to figure out what is where," as one person close to the file put it.

2. Hans Island/Lincoln Sea

Who's involved: Canada v. Denmark

The problem: A tiny island off the coast of Greenland that falls within both countries' territorial claims, plus a small stretch of the Lincoln Sea that is technically in dispute.

The fix: The foreign policy paper is seen as a signal that Canada may be willing to negotiate a solution to the impasse.

3. Continental Shelf

Who's involved: Canada v. Russia (mostly)

The problem: According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim the seabed far beyond their land borders based on their share of the continental shelf. Russia is laying claim to everything up to and including the North Pole. Canada disagrees. The United States hasn't signed the convention.

The fix: Canada has until 2013 to submit its claim, after which the UN will make recommendations that countries can accept or ignore.

4. Northwest Passage

Who's involved: Canada v. the world

The problem: The passage through the Arctic archipelago is clearly within Canada's 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone. But is it actually Canadian territory? We say yes; the United States and most other countries say no, and that ships are entitled to "innocent passage" through it.

The fix: There is no fix. Some day, the United States might agree to accept Canadian authority over the passage, to deter environmental disasters and security threats. But many observers believe Canada will have to spend a great deal of money to prove to the world it has the means to enforce its will in northern waters. Neither the money or the will are there.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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