Canada was among several Arctic-bordering nations to face criticism at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, as Greenpeace launched a new campaign aimed at preserving the Arctic as a "global sanctuary" that should be protected from resource exploitation.

Environmentalists took swipes at nationalist claims on the polar region for offshore oil drilling, arguing for the creation of a special Arctic reserve to protect animal and plant species.

Eco-minded celebrities such as former Beatle Paul McCartney, actress Penelope Cruz and director Robert Redford added their voices to the Greenpeace goal. They were among the first 100 signatories of a "Flag for the Future" scroll that Greenpeace hopes will be signed by a million people and placed on the Arctic seabed.

The document — designed by the Girl Guides and intended for burial four kilometres beneath the ice —  would be a symbolic reminder that drilling and industrial fishing are banned in the area.

Canada, Russia, the United States, Denmark and Norway have all been trying to stake claims over parts of the Arctic, which is believed to hold up to a quarter of the Earth’s untapped oil and gas reserves.

"We have to win in the Arctic," Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said. "We have to draw a line in the ice and say to the polluters you can go no further."

'Fundamental responsibility'

Clayton Thomas-Muller, a board member of  REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands), an Alaska-based  group of indigenous people who oppose the exploitation of their territory, warned that the area is especially vulnerable to pollution and spills.

"We have a fundamental responsibility in Canada — as Canadians, as First nations, as Inuit — to put a stop to our government’s agenda to develop our Arctic," Thomas-Muller said.

Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson has also signed the petition. On Thursday, Branson spoke out against Canada’s role in the Arctic sovereignty fight.

"Canada, it's just sad to see it's sort of hand-in-hand with the U.S.A. on all these issues," he said. "It would just be wonderful to really see it back to being a country the rest of the world can admire."

Canada was also singled out in speeches for blocking wording on everything from human rights protection to the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.

Canada blasted by Greenpeace

Greenpeace said Canada is losing its international stature on the world stage.

"Canada is unrecognizable to us," Naidoo said. "Who has seen Canada as a bastion of human rights, of environmental protection and so on, in the past?"

Environment Minister Peter Kent begged to differ, saying Canada isn’t accepting a role as a villain, but is simply being realistic.

"Canada has come in good faith to participate, to debate, and to negotiate an outcome document which fairly reflects where we're coming from and where we're going," Kent said.

He said Canada has already won praise from other nations, including Brazil, for stopping the Earth Summit conference from "going off the deep end" and setting unrealistic goals. 

In 2007, Russia staked a symbolic claim to the region by dropping a canister containing the Russian flag on the ocean floor from a small submarine at the North Pole.

With files from CBC's Connie Watson, The Associated Press