TORONTO – Canada's next prime minister used his first press conference Thursday to tell the United States to mind its own business when it comes to territorial rights in the Arctic North.
Testing the notion that he would kowtow to the Bush administration, Stephen Harper, whose Conservative Party won general elections on Monday, said he would stand by a campaign pledge to increase Canada's military presence in the Arctic and put three military icebreakers in the frigid waters of the Northwest Passage.
U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins had criticized the plan Wednesday, describing the Arctic passage as "neutral waters."
"There's no reason to create a problem that doesn't exist," Wilkins said during a panel discussion at the University of Western Ontario, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "We don't recognize Canada's claims to those waters. Most other countries do not recognize their claim."
No reporter brought up the ambassador's views Thursday but Harper said at the end of his first formal news conference that he wanted to comment on them.
"The United States defends its sovereignty; the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty," Harper said. "It is the Canadian people that we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States."
Harper's surprising salvo was likely intended as a message to those in the Bush administration who might be cheering the election of a Conservative government and view Harper as a pushover when it comes to prickly U.S.-Canadian relations.
Arctic sovereignty has been a sensitive subject for decades, with U.S. Navy submarines and ships entering northern waters without asking permission. Ottawa has generally turned a blind eye to the United States' sending ships through the area.
Canadian media reported last month that a U.S. nuclear submarine traveled secretly through Canadian Arctic waters in November on its way to the North Pole.
The Northwest Passage runs from the Atlantic through the Arctic to the Pacific.
Global warming is melting the passage — which is only navigable during a slim window in the summer — and exposing unexplored fishing stocks and an attractive shipping route. Commercial ships can shave off some 2,480 miles off the trip from Europe to Asia compared with the current routes through the Panama Canal.
Harper said during a campaign speech in December he would dramatically increase Canada's military presence in the Arctic North. He intends to construct and deploy three new armed icebreaking ships and construct a $1.7 billion deep-water port and an underwater network of "listening posts."
"The single most important duty of the federal government is to protect and defend our national sovereignty," Harper said in that speech. "There are new and disturbing reports of American nuclear submarines passing though Canadian waters without obtaining the permission of, or even notifying, the Canadian government."
Harper has not said whether he would order military action if the ships or port detected an unauthorized submarine in Arctic waters.
Harper, meanwhile, said he had a friendly conversation with President Bush on Wednesday but had not fixed a date for their first meeting. He said he had also received calls from other major allies, including Mexican President Vicente Fox, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.