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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will travel to Canada's far north in late August in a bid to bolster claims to Arctic sovereignty and to paint the opposition as weak on foreign policy and defense issues ahead of a possible election this fall.
Harper will fly to the small coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean and will even chair a meeting of top cabinet ministers in Inuvik in the Mackenzie River Delta region of the Northwest Territories.
With increased international focus on the Arctic and the Northwest Passage through Canada opening up as ice melts, Ottawa has made it a priority to assert the country's claims over its northern waterways.
"It now has a geopolitical importance that a few years ago wasn't obvious," a senior Conservative official said, noting the region's potential as a new source of oil and gas, and also its strategic and environmental risks.
Harper's minority Conservative government, keeping an eye on a possible election campaign, has pledged to buy new Arctic patrol ships, expand aerial surveillance and bolster the numbers and capabilities of the Canadian Rangers northern military unit.
The Conservative source said Stephane Dion, leader of the main opposition Liberal Party, had said parks were needed more than ships but this naively ignored strategic realities.
"It's real focus, boots on the ground, (that is needed) ... to actively assert Canadian sovereignty," he said.
Dion spokesman Mark Dunn, reacting to the comments, turned the argument towards global warming.
"Maybe if Harper had an environmental policy the Arctic would still be frozen," Dunn said. "Mr. Dion has always supported Arctic sovereignty."
Dion and Harper could be going head to head in an election within the next few months, perhaps just after the U.S. election in November, with two prominent issues likely to be the environment and their leadership qualities.
Dion has advocated what he calls the Green Shift, imposing new carbon taxes on fossil fuels as a way to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. The plan calls for the new carbon taxes to be offset by income tax cuts and subsidies for the poor.
How well the Green Shift program is accepted by the public might determine whether Dion decides to pull the plug on the minority Conservative government, which was elected in January 2006. By-elections on September 8 to fill three vacant parliamentary seats may give an early indication.
If the Conservatives are not defeated in Parliament, triggering a new general election, a vote will automatically be held next October.
Polls suggest neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have enough popular support to win a majority if an election were held now.