April 17, 2011 / 11:18 PM / in 7 years

UPDATE 1-Canadian leaders spar over Arctic ahead of election

* Liberals say too much emphasis on military in region

* Conservatives deny Far North social needs ignored

* Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims are disputed (Adds details)

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, April 17 (Reuters) - Canada’s opposition Liberals accused Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday of militarizing the Arctic while ignoring the social and economic problems of the region.

Canada’s strategy for protecting its claims in the Far North is expected to play a bigger role in the May 2 federal election, with both Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff expected to make campaign trips to the resource-rich region this week.

Polls show the Conservatives will win re-election and possibly gain enough seats in Parliament to form a majority government that will not require opposition support to remain in power. [ID:nN1766033]

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.

Several countries, including the United States, contend that the Northwest Passage is international waters and dispute Canada’s right to control what ships can travel the route.

The Conservatives, who have had a minority government since 2006, have pushed an Arctic strategy that includes building a new military training facility and new patrol vessels for the Northwest Passage.

“Mr Harper has militarized the north, as if the only thing that matters is the miliary sovereignty aspects of that,” Ignatieff told reporters at a campaign stop in Vancouver, where he was joined by former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Ignatieff said Canadians wanted to protect the country’s sovereignty claims but recognized that doing so also required helping its isolated communities and giving them a stake in future economic development.

The Liberal leader said Canada’s Arctic claims also required it to do more to fight climate change.

Harper, who was also campaigning on the Pacific Coast on Sunday, denied the government was ignoring the region’s social and environmental needs.

“Yes we absolutely have made investments in Canada’s sovereignty and military in the Arctic. We are very proud of what our men and women in uniform do in the Canadian Arctic, Harper said.

He said the government was not opposed to offshore drilling in the Arctic but wanted to ensure safety standards would not allow a repeat of the environmental devastation caused by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Climate change also is expected to increase mining in the region.

ArcelorMittal is seeking approval to build an iron mine above the Arctic circle on Baffin Island that is expected to be large enough to meet all of Europe’s ore demand for several years. (Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing by Paul Simao and Jackie Frank)

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