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Maj. Chris Bergeron, right, scouts a route through rough ice on Eureka Sound, the inter-island channel separating Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands, earlier this year. ((Dianne Whelan/Canadian Press))

The federal government will fund the construction of six to eight new Arctic patrol ships to help reassert Canada's sovereignty over the North, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday.

The Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships will be custom-built, state of the art and made in Canada, Harper said during a ceremony at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on Vancouver Island.

The shipswill costabout $3.1 billion, withabout $4.3 billion for operations and maintenance over their 25-year lifespan.

"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic," Harper said.

"Either we use it or we lose it. And make no mistake —this government intends to use it."

He said the ships' hullswill be reinforced with steel and be able to crunch through ice up to a metre thick, allowing the shipsto patrol the length of the Northwest Passage during months whena Canadian naval presence is necessary.

The vessels will be armed and will havea helicopter landing pad, Harper added.

Harper also said the government will construct adeepwater port somewhere in the FarNorth, with the location to be announced soon. The port will be used as an operation base for the new patrol vessels.

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn and Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl were among those at CFBEsquimaltfor the announcement.

Harper told reporters there that the North is becoming increasinglysought afterfor its natural resources and, as ice melts, the Northwest Passage is getting easier to navigate.

The North is already the focus of territorial disputes with the United States, Russia and Denmark.

"It is no exaggeration to say that the need to assert our sovereignty and protect our territorial integrity in the North on our terms have never been more urgent," Harper said.

"Our expectation is over the next 25 years, you're going to see an increasing range of human activity in that part of the world that you haven't seen in the past 100 years."

Liberals decry theships as too weak

Some Liberals were quick to attack the prime minister's announcement on Monday, saying thepatrol boatsare not as powerful as the icebreakers Harper had originally promised to bring up North.

During the run-up to the 2006 federal election, Harper promisedto spend billions on three naval ice-breakers, an army base in northern Cambridge Bay and a deepwater port near Iqaluit.

The Liberals argue that the ships Harper promised Monday can't break through the ice and do their patrols in the coldest winter months, like an ice-breaker could.

"Instead of having boats that will help us protect our Canadian sovereignty, it seems like it's more the Arctic summer tour that[Harper] creates today," MP Denis Coderre, the Liberal defence critic, said.

Senator Colin Kenny, the chairman of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, was equally critical of the patrol ships' abilities.

"I think they're going to be so light, they'll have trouble breaking the ice in a gin and tonic," he said.

Harper said the smaller ships were selected after discussions with the military and government, adding thattheyare versatile and will serve Canada well during high-trafficmonths in the North.

"We went with more of the medium icebreakers, that frankly allow us to patrol the Arctic waters in the Northwest Passage when it matters," said Harper. "We opted in the end for medium ice breakers, far more of them, and with the capability to patrol a wide range of Canadian waters."

4 possible sites for Arctic port

Documents obtained by CBC News indicate the military has evaluated four possible sites to base the vessels, including Iqaluit.

Before Harper made the official announcement, Pierre LeBlanc, the former CF commander in the North, welcomed the idea of new resources for the North.

"Any additional activity or resources that we apply to the North will increase our claim to sovereignty," saidLeBlanc.

However, he said, Iqaluit wouldn't be the best location because it is nowhere near the Northwest Passage. Canada's militaryshould be centred right in the middle of the Arctic, at Resolute Bay, LeBlanc said.

"Iqaluit is completely on the East Coast of Canada and it would take ages to go to the West Coast from Iqaluit," he said.

"In terms of Canadian sovereignty, I thinkit would be the wrong place."

He recommended that themilitary should expand the presence it already has at Resolute Bay.

With files from the Canadian Press