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Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird attends an event in Ottawa on Thursday, December 12, 2013.The Canadian Press

The Harper government sees sovereignty as the top focus of its Arctic strategy, Foreign Minister John Baird told an international audience, stressing that Ottawa will continue to work with Canada's neighbours in the North to establish boundaries.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr. Baird said Ottawa is also looking to strengthen regulations of the oil-and-gas and mining sectors, as well as ocean shippers, in the region.

"Our first priority is asserting Canadian sovereignty. Obviously we want to assure the widest amount of Canadian sovereignty as possible," he told a Davos forum Thursday on the Arctic and climate change.

"The second priority is economic development," he added. "We've been terribly disappointed. We've seen a lot of economic development but little benefit has gone to indigenous people."

He said the government's third priority is environmental protection, and pointed to a need for better rules for resource extraction and shipping. "One major spill in the Arctic will close the industry for one generation, two generations, three generations."

He referred to his government's decision to create protected areas and suggested there may be more sanctuaries established "in the most pristine parts of the Arctic."

Some academics and environmentalists in the audience suggested Arctic nations have a duty to do more to protect the region by reducing their own carbon emissions, which are the major cause of rapid melting in the Far North.

"It was a big setback when Canada stepped back from its commitments to Kyoto," said Jim Leape of the World Wide Fund for Nature. "If the Arctic nations stepped forward, it would make a big difference on climate change. I mean, we're talking Canada, the U.S., Norway and Russia."

Mr. Baird said he would be happy to commit to a binding global agreement on emissions, but took to task a range of rapidly developing nations, from Saudi Arabia to China, that had done little to reduce their own emissions.

Norwegian foreign minister Borge Brende also took exception to suggestions that Arctic nations do not approach development in a sustainable manner.

"We feel it is our right to do what we have done for centuries, which is to create jobs for our people," he said, criticizing international environment groups that have fought development in the Far North. "For thousands of years, Norwegians have been making a living out of the Arctic."

Mr. Leape said the Arctic Council may have to take on more issues of economic development to ensure standards are being met in all the countries that have territory north of the Arctic Circle. The Council was created as a venue for those governments to discuss and resolve concerns about the region's environmental and economic state. Several other nations belong to the Council as observers.

Some more southern governments suggest the Arctic should be managed by a global body, as the Antarctic is.

Mr. Brende, the Norwegian minister, stressed that all Arctic territory is sovereign to individual states and can develop differently. "I cannot go to the U.S. and say, 'Oh, North Dakota, this is how you should develop.' We have our own approach ... as long as we're within international standards."

He referred to protests over fish farming in the 1970s, and argued the industry has grown significantly without serious concern and is set to grow much more. "Today we have hundreds of thousands of people living off it."

Such development has also allowed indigenous villages to remain viable in the 21st century, he argued.

"I travel a lot in the Arctic and the biggest supporters for economic development are the indigenous people," said Scott Minerd, global chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, who was part of the panel. "They're not interested in outsiders telling them they can't take advantage of what's out there."