Canada says it is open to collaborating with Russia to establish national boundary lines across the High Arctic, opening the door to joint exploration and mapping after years of tough talk from both sides about sovereignty and the ownership of untapped resources.
"Canada's North is central to our government's vision for Canada's future," Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said Friday. "We're actively mapping the Arctic continental shelf. This is part of our plan to defend Canada's sovereignty. We welcome any co-operation."
Mr. MacDougall was responding to a challenge by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who earlier this week urged Canada to establish a joint scientific council with his country to investigate issues over Arctic sovereignty. Its work would help the United Nations draw new boundaries in the North, where the receding ice fields are opening new possibilities for the recovery of valuable resources, including oil and gas.
Mr. Harper has talked often about the need for Canada to assert its Arctic sovereignty, and his government is planning to have a dozen new ships patrolling the northern seas within the next 10 years. But privately he has acknowledged to NATO officials that Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic.
Canadian scientists have been mapping the Arctic for years. Since 2008, they have been collaborating with the United States and last year a joint expedition between the two countries completed a survey of the continental shelf.
Jacob Verhoef, a director with the Geological Survey of Canada, which is a section of Natural Resources Canada, said Friday that the information collected last summer was of high quality and is now being analyzed to see if it proves that Canada's claim stretches as far as Canadian officials hope. "The initial results are positive," he said.
But there has been so little information compiled about what lies under the Arctic Ocean that Canada could always use more data to strengthen its case, Mr. Verhoef said.
Countries have jurisdiction over the region that is less than 200 nautical miles from their shores. But the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea uses a complicated formula based upon the shape of the continental shelf to determine how far each nation's sovereign territory extends beyond those limits.
The information collected from the undersea mapping must be presented to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the body responsible for determining national boundaries in the Arctic. The deadline for the submission is December, 2013, and Mr. Verhoef said it will likely take that long for the analysis to be completed.
In addition to the work done with the Americans, Mr. Verhoef said, Canada has also collaborated with the Danes to collect data in the eastern Arctic north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
There are advantages for countries that are able to do this work together.
Canada and the United States each devoted an icebreaker to their joint exploration last summer, which helped to reduce costs. And because the information collected by the Americans was a different type to that collected by the Canadians, the shared effort resulted in a much more comprehensive survey.
Collaboration could also reduce some of the pressure that both Russia and Canada have felt in recent years to exert military might in the far North.
Hélène Laverdière, foreign affairs critic for the federal NDP, said Friday that co-operation is important, but her party would like to know the ultimate objective of the mapping exercise.
"Exploiting resources in the North is one thing, but that must be done in full respect of the environment," Ms. Laverdière said. "It is a very, very sensitive region. And we haven't always seen from the Russian authorities the utmost respect for the environment. So what is the game plan here?"