Canada to reaffirm sovereignty over High Arctic waters at conference

Canada is committed to protecting its sovereignty in the waters of the High Arctic as it begins the process of mapping the northern territory with other nations, says the federal minister of natural resources.

Canada is committed to defending and protecting its sovereignty in the waters of the High Arctic as it begins the process of mapping the northern territory with other nations, says the federal minister of natural resources.

Gary Lunn is travelling to Ilulissat, Greenland, on Tuesday to discuss Canada's claim to the northern seabed with officials from Denmark, Norway, the United States and Russia, who are also looking to secure their piece of the Arctic pie.

"There's a lot of co-operation between countries that is happening, but it's important that we have strong presence on the world stage," said Lunn.

The three-day conference is expected to discuss rules, dictated by the UN Law of the Sea Convention, on dividing jurisdiction over the High Arctic waters, one of the most rapidly changing parts of the world due to climate change.

As the ice continues to melt, countries with continental shelves on the Arctic Ocean are increasingly concerned over who controls the territory and its resources.

"It's critically important that it's under our sovereign control so that we set the parameters for the environment and that we make the decisions whether or not even to allow exploration," Lunn said Monday.

Under the UN law, signed by Canada in 2003, the five northern countries may be able to extend their sovereignty beyond the usual 200-nautical-mile limit recognized in international law if the seabed is an extension of the continental shelf.

Canada's claim includes a swath of ocean floor stretching to the North Pole that would be the equivalent in size to the three Prairie provinces combined. Canada has until 2013 to submit its claim on the area, which stretches from the Yukon to the eastern Arctic.

The area in question wouldn't be subject to any sort of overlapping claim with other countries, Lunn said. Canada's territorial disputes in the Arctic, such as the location of the boundary between the Yukon and Alaska and the control of the Northwest Passage, aren't expected to be major topics at the conference.

Firms already after oil, gas reserves

The High Arctic seabed is coveted for its potential oil and gas reserves, not just along the coast of Beaufort Sea but at the North Pole. Estimates put about 25 per cent of the world's remaining oil and gas reserves beneath the Arctic's ocean floor.

Energy firms have already begun exploring the waters off Greenland, while large deposits of gas are known to exist off the islands of the Canadian archipelago, as well as the coasts of the Northwest Territories and Alaska.

Inhospitable conditions, including extreme cold and six months of darkness every year, make the Far North a difficult place for exploration.

"There's an interest in those resources, but more immediate in the area is the fact that there will be more international shipping over the top of the world as the ice starts to melt," the CBC's Margo McDiarmid reported Tuesday from Ottawa.

The nautical journey from China to New York, for example, is 7,000 kilometres shorter if travelled across the Arctic waters over the top of the world rather than through the Panama Canal.

As new passages are established by melting ice, Canada will be increasingly open to international traffic across and around its borders.

"The fear is that there will be more international shipping, more cruise ships, and there needs to be some kind of control, especially for Canada for those ships travelling through its waters," McDiarmid said.

Lunn emphasized that boundaries in the High Arctic must  be defined by science, but would not speculate on the possible outcomes of the conference, saying only "we want to reaffirm our commitment on the world stage."

The conference is also expected to address co-operation between the five countries on maritime safety, environmental protection and search and rescue.

With files from the Canadian Press