Harper set to reassert Arctic territorial sovereignty amid ongoing tensions with Russia

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Prime Minister Stephen Harper begins his ninth annual summer tour of the Arctic on Thursday.

Harper will take part in discussions regarding economic development, make a funding announcement about northern agriculture and take part in a military exercise in part to assert Canada's sovereignty in the region.

This trip — unlike his past eight trips — is a little different in that it comes with a backdrop of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

[ Related: Harper North trip to highlight agriculture, Arctic sovereignty ]

Russia and Canada are rivals when it comes to Arctic sovereignty. Buoyed by the north's natural resource riches, Russia and Canada, along with the United States and the EU are all in disagreement about Arctic boundaries.

The University of Ottawa's Ivan Katchanovski, an expert on Russian affairs, suggests that growing tensions between Canada and Russia, about Ukraine, will invariably spill over into the Arctic.

"The conflict in Ukraine has a significant negative impact on the prospects
for the cooperation between Canada and Russia in these and other areas," the political science professor told Yahoo Canada News.

"The Ukrainian conflict is also likely to increase or at least make it harder to solve an existing dispute between Canada and Russia involving overlapping claims
over some large resource-rich seabed areas of the Arctic."

While no one is suggesting any military actions, there have been some provocations in recent months.

As explained by the Globe and Mail, Canadian jets were scrambled twice in June in response to Russian bombers over the Arctic.

"The Canadian government believes at least some of these patrols, in particular similar Russian flights off the U.S. West Coast, are “strategic messaging from Moscow” in response to tensions between the West and Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, sources say.

"Defence Minister Rob Nicholson offered few details about the new incidents after revealing them in the Commons.

"However, he said the flights demonstrate “the need for ongoing vigilance” in Canada’s north. “We continue to see Russian military activity in the Arctic. The Canadian Armed Forces remain ready and able to respond.”"

[ Related: Baird calls possible Russian incursion into Ukraine 'troubling', Canada to send more supplies ]

Despite those incidences, other experts suggest that international fair play in the Arctic can continue unfettered.

UBC professor and Arctic expert Michael Byers recently penned an article for the Globe and Mail, noting that cooperation in the Arctic has historically endured some nasty geopolitical events.

"Arctic countries have been co-operating on environmental protection since 1973, when, at the height of the Cold War, they signed the Polar Bear Treat," he wrote.

"In 1982, Canada chaired the committee that drafted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Russia has abided by the convention, negotiating fisheries management regimes and maritime boundaries with the United States and Norway."

And even if Harper has the urge to use northern tour to revamp his anti-Russia rhetoric, he doesn't have the resources to back-up his tough-talk.

As explained by a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Harper hasn't always put his money where is mouth is when it comes to Arctic sovereignty.

"The government has invested a lot of political capital in ministerial trips to Canada’s North, and to talking about the importance of the region to Canada’s identity and security," notes the report.

"Unfortunately, the military and coast guard are a long way from being able to effectively patrol and monitor what is going on in those millions of square kilometres that make up the Canadian Arctic."

The northern tour of Canada's three territories begins in Whitehorse on Thursday and will last six days.

(Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)

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