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Turf war with Russia looms over Ottawa’s claim to Arctic seabed

Ranger scout Samson Ejanqiaq looks for an easier route through rough sea ice that bedevilled a patrol of Canadian Rangers on their way from CFS Alert to the Eureka Weather Station.


The stage is set for a territorial dispute with Russia after the Harper government ordered a rewrite of Canada's international claim for Arctic seabed rights to include the North Pole – a region that Moscow has already marked as its own.

The Globe and Mail reported on Wednesday that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has asked government bureaucrats to craft a more expansive international claim for ocean-floor riches in the Arctic after the proposed submission they showed him failed to include the geographic North Pole.

This means Canada and Russia will have overlapping claims, a situation that will likely require negotiations between Ottawa and Moscow. The Canadian government also expects Denmark to claim the Pole.

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The Arctic is believed to contain as much as one-quarter of the world's undiscovered energy resources, and countries are tabling scientific evidence with a United Nations commission to win rights to polar sea-floor assets. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can secure control of the ocean floor beyond the internationally recognized 200 nautical mile limit if it can demonstrate the seabed is an extension of its continental shelf.

One Arctic expert cheered Mr. Harper's decision. Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said until now he had been concerned Canada would relinquish the Pole.

"I wasn't seeing any evidence that we were pushing the submission as far as we were entitled under international law," Prof. Huebert said, adding Canada should not be "prematurely surrendering" the geographic North Pole, but should instead look for the maximum gain.

He said Canada's bid for the Pole means the world will learn whether an earlier pledge by countries to resolve their differences through a UN-approved process stands up to pressure.

"The underlining principle is there would be differences, but we would resolve them in a co-operative spirit. We're going to find out whether or not Russians and Danes actually meant it when they signed on."

Both of Canada's major opposition parties distanced themselves from Mr. Harper's decision to rewrite the claim – with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau saying he would leave the decision to experts.

"I am going to defer to scientists. There has been an awful lot of work done over the past years, and even decades, on mapping out the undersea floor of the North Pole to align with the United Nations regulations. … And I don't know that it is a place where we need necessarily to have political interference. I trust our scientists and oceanographers in terms of how we're mapping it," Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

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Russian and Danish diplomats in Canada declined to comment on Wednesday. The Russian embassy suggested it might have something to say in a matter of days.

Senior government officials say Canada will meet its Dec. 6 deadline for making an application to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, but it will be a preliminary submission that outlines a portion of the Canadian claim and preserves this country's right to make further submissions later.

Canada will follow up with a broader claim that includes the geographic North Pole after the necessary work has been completed, sources say.

This could include more undersea mapping. Senior officials say one option still under consideration is to send a ship back to the Arctic to conduct more surveys next year.

New Democrat MP Dennis Bevington said he was shocked by Mr. Harper's decision. "For the Prime Minister to arbitrarily change that is unconscionable."

Senior government officials have said they believe the broader claim is justified, adding that the proposed application did not include all the areas that could qualify as an extension of Canada's continental shelf based on available evidence and the UN commission's scientific criteria.

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The Prime Minister is not prepared to forfeit Canada's claim to the geographic North Pole to Russia and Denmark, senior officials said.

John Geiger, chief executive officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, said he believes the "average Canadian" would approve of Mr. Harper's intervention. "[They] expect the most robust effort by the federal government to defend our sovereignty in the Arctic and … diplomatic niceties take a back seat to that."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More


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