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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada will promote itself as an Arctic power in asserting its sovereignty over the resource-rich region, the government said on Friday in a paper laying out its foreign policy plans for the Far North.
The move highlights the growing tensions among countries with Arctic borders as global warming makes rich mineral and energy deposits increasingly accessible and opens its ice-covered seas to shipping.
Canada will step up efforts to resolve boundary disputes it has with the United States and other allies, but that does not mean it is softening its sovereignty claims to the region including the Northwest Passage, officials said.
"Let me be clear, the number one priority of our northern strategy is the promotion and protection of Canadian sovereignty in the north," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, calling it "non-negotiable."
Canada rejects suggestions international governance of Arctic needs to be changed, although it recognizes the region is undergoing fundamental changes, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon told reporters.
The policy statement released on Friday largely repeated statements Ottawa has made in the past, but officials said was intended to signal that Canada views its domestic and foreign policy claims to the region as intertwined.
"For far too long we feel the Arctic has not been spoken for, and we believe it is time Canada takes full recognition of the Arctic," Cannon told reporters in Ottawa.
Canada claims a large swath of the Arctic including the Northwest Passage, which could become an important shipping link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as climate change melts away the northern ice cap.
It has boundary disputes with the United States in the Beaufort Sea and with Denmark over an island in the Lincoln Sea of the North Atlantic. Its claim that the Northwest Passage is a domestic waterway is disputed by many countries.
New disputes with Russia and other countries loom as Arctic nations map the ocean floor to establish territorial water claims that will likely be overlapping. Those claims are to submitted to the United Nations in 2013.
Cannon said Canada's claim to be an Arctic power is based on its having historically had people living in the Far North, as well as its more recent economic development, environmental efforts and military patrols.
Critics of the government's Arctic policies say its claims of promoting economic development in the region have not been followed with action, such as constructing of pipelines to tap gas resources.
The government this week also apologized for the forced relocation of native Inuit families into new Arctic villages in the 1950s, a policy seen now as an attempt to strengthen Canada's sovereignty claims.
Harper is scheduled to tour the Far North next week, a trip that has become almost an annual pilgrimage for Harper since he took office. It will include participate in an oil-spill cleanup training exercise.
Canada has no oil drilling in the Arctic now, but it is expected to begin in the next few years. The Northwest Passage is also expected to see increased tanker traffic.
Reporting by Allan Dowd, Editing by Frank McGurty