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CPAWS issues call to protect Canada’s northern oceans

Canada's true north, strong and free - and wild

This commentary first appeared on (link)

There is a simple and elegant way for Canada to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Ocean. So why isn't Prime Minister Stephen Harper talking about it? The solution is to create a network of marine protected areas across the Arctic. Call them water parks -- untouched areas where narwhals, polar bears, walruses, Arctic cod and seabirds can watch their seascape melt. These mysterious, cold ecosystems, previously locked under ice, are just now revealing their secrets.

Protection is clearly prudent from an ecological standpoint, but the creation and mapping of MPAs will also strengthen Canada's sovereignty claim in several ways. Location is key: Consider Lancaster Sound, the body of water that stretches across the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage.

It is without question the most celebrated marine area in the Canadian Arctic, teeming with ocean life. Calls for its protection go back decades. The latest came last month from New Democratic Leader Jack Layton. Yet Mr. Harper remains silent, even though protecting Lancaster Sound was part of his spring budget.

In public, the Prime Minister speaks only of increasing our military presence in the Arctic. But trying to achieve internationally recognized sovereignty just by increasing our military presence is like betting on a one-trick pony with obvious handicaps. The international community will not side with a government spending spurious dollars on questionable defence of an icy, peaceful place.

What will impress the world is using Canada's increased military might for the protection of its northern ocean environment -- a wilderness of incalculable wonder and benefit to the entire international community.

Putting real dollars behind the protection of these watery ecosystems will speak more loudly than convenient military deployment. Our claim to the Arctic must go deeper than soldiers on the tundra and anemic icebreakers crunching what is left of our melting seascape.

It must be based on more than our greed over potential oil reserves. Our claim to the Arctic must also prove a "Canadianism" -- a place we cherish and protect, defending that true north so it remains strong and free -- and wild.

But how can we make that claim when we don't protect the ecological integrity of the passage? This, the true test of Canadian territory.

Our claim to the Arctic must also defend the traditional lives of the Inuit, our human claim to northern waters. We must strengthen their communities, saddened by horrific youth suicide rates, so eloquently expressed in The Globe and Mail by Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

A co-management arrangement for Arctic MPAs would utilize the Inuit's incomparable local knowledge while creating jobs and business opportunities. The resulting economic boost to their struggling communities would speak volumes to the world, highlighting Canada's real commitment to the Inuit and permanent northern settlements that form the foundation of our sovereignty assertion.

But an even more simple argument could lie deep within these chilly MPAs -- increasingly important as the world warms. If protected, these Arctic waters can be places for Canada's northern creatures to multiply and for southern creatures to find refuge. These Arctic MPAs might actually save some creatures from extinction.

Canada could argue that these areas are central to the protection of species and remain, in fact, extensions of their habitats. The polar bear -- that beloved international icon of global warming -- is a marine mammal, a creature of both ice and ocean. Lancaster Sound happens to be home to Canada's largest population of polar bears.

In the name of conservation, Canada can request notice from other countries wanting to enter the Northwest Passage from the eastern entrance, due to polar bear movements. In that scenario, Canada becomes the friendly gatekeeper. Decisions made in the name of environmental necessity could prove a popular interim compromise with the international community. And this case for access, based on environmental considerations, could certainly be applied to other Arctic MPAs currently languishing on the government's agenda.

Simple and elegant, a tidy solution for all.

Mr. Harper, it's all right to talk about MPAs. A solely military solution won't work. Canada needs a sophisticated, multipronged approach that is, above all else, creative. The other suitors for our Arctic waters have more soldiers, more guns, more icebreakers. We need something more of our own.

In one deft move, Canada could strengthen sovereignty, save troubled creatures, give our new icebreakers something to defend and improve Canada's international reputation on environmental issues. That deft move would also position Canada as the moral authority on the Arctic, further cementing our presence and ultimate sovereignty claim.

Sabine Jessen is national manager of the oceans and great freshwater lakes program with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.