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A new poll asked Canadians and citizens of seven other Arctic countries, "From what you know or have heard, is the Northwest Passage within Canadian waters, an international waterway or in dispute?" Seventy-eight per cent of Canadians living in the three territories and 74 per cent of Canadians living in the provinces said within our waters. A majority of respondents in the other countries - the United States, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland - said they didn't know.

The Northwest Passage could be part of Canada's internal waters. It could be an international strait. That debate continues, as illustrated by the results of the poll on Arctic security, which was released this week by researchers at the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.

But would anybody argue that this is the single critical issue facing the Canadian Arctic today? Surely, it is not.

Canadians want their government to secure its sovereignty in the Arctic, and they believe there is a continuing role for the Canadian military there. A majority of Canadians agree their country "should strengthen its military presence in the North in order to protect against international threats." At the same time, fighter jets and warships alone do not make Northerners feel secure.

An overwhelming 98 per cent said better access to high-quality health care, education and drinking water is important too. This finding illustrates a tendency to view security in the Arctic in broad terms. To many Canadians, cultural, linguistic and environmental security are as important as national security.

Eighty-one per cent of Northerners and 71 per cent of Southerners agree that "the best way to protect Canada's interest in the Arctic is to have Canadians living there." Some have said that Canada needs to "use it or lose it" in the Arctic, but there are enduring human communities who have been "using it" there since time immemorial. Indeed, the greatest threat of Canada "losing" its Arctic might arise not from foreign warships or bombers but from the social, climatic and economic challenges that keep those living there from fully benefiting from Canadian citizenship.

Sovereignty can be undermined by Canada's Arctic citizens not having access to clean drinking water. It can be undermined by low educational attainment rates. It can be undermined by shrinking ice cover that leads to changes in the migratory patterns of the animals Northerners rely on to supplement their food sources. And it can be undermined by high unemployment rates that force many young Northerners to move South to find work.

The best demonstration of Canadian sovereignty would be to ensure that residents of our North are able to continue living in their communities. No less than 90 per cent of Northerners and 83 per cent of Southerners agree that "all Canadians should be able to experience the same quality of life." By fighting housing shortages, low educational attainment and drug and alcohol abuse, Canada's Arctic sovereignty can be greatly strengthened. We can reinforce our national relationships with the Arctic by investing in the region's economic and social foundations, by fully implementing nation-building land-claim settlements with indigenous peoples and by investing in military hardware.

During the final speech of his tour last August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his emphasis on the North is about nation-building. "This is the frontier. This is the place that defines our country," he said. Our country is widely recognized as one that broadly defines its security by seeking to promote environmental, cultural and food security at home in Canada and throughout the world. This commitment should hold true in every part of the country - from sea to sea to sea.

Tony Penikett is chair of the Munk-Gordon Foundation Arctic Security Program Conference and former premier of the Yukon.

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