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Canada-US Arctic Dispute Sparks Sharp Exchange


Even though he has not yet been sworn in, Canada's prime minister designate is already in a diplomatic dispute with the United States. At issue is claims of sovereignty in the northern Arctic.

The dispute is over Canada's claim to the area of the Arctic Ocean that is offshore from the country's northern territories.Canada, the United States and Russia have had conflicting claims in the Arctic for years.

The prime minister designate's retort came after the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, made a comment earlier this week disputing Canada's assertion of sovereignty over Arctic waters the United States considers international territory. "We don't recognize Canada's claim to those waters," he said.

Ambassador Wilkins added that there is no reason to create a problem that does not exist.

For incoming Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will formally take office on February 6, this issue clearly is a problem.

Canada's northern sovereignty became a recurring issue during the 46-year-old economist's recent election campaign. Mr. Harper is promising to build three new armed icebreaking ships for the Arctic in addition to establishing underwater sensors to listen for foreign vessels, including U.S. submarines. He is also vowing to establish aerial surveillance and install more military personnel. In addition, he supports plans for building a new port in the Arctic town of Iqaluit to house the additional personnel and new ships.

In his first news conference since forming a Conservative minority government this past Monday, Mr. Harper, gave a stern response to the U.S. ambassador's comments. "As you know, I was very clear about this in the election campaign. The United States defends its sovereignty. The Canadian government will defend our sovereignty. I've been very clear in the campaign that we have significant plans for national defense and for defense of our sovereignty including Arctic sovereignty. We believe we have a mandate for those from the Canadian people and we hope to have it as well from the House of Commons, but it is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the Ambassador of the United States," he said.

Canada's relations with the United States also became a recurring issue during the campaign.

The prime minister-elect frequently accused Liberal party leader and now outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin of bashing the United States and President Bush for political gain.

Ambassador Wilkins, in a December speech to a business group, even entered into that discussion, saying the repeated accusations over trade irritants and other actions could hurt relations between Canada and the United States.

Mr. Martin and the Bush administration have clashed over a tariff the United States imposed on softwood lumber imported from Canada. Several international tribunals have ruled against the tariff, which the U.S. government has refused to withdraw.

Mr. Harper, who promised during the campaign to solve the softwood issue, received a telephone call from President Bush shortly after the election. Mr. Harper would not disclose if they talked about the issues between the two countries, or any other details of the conversation.