Harper dives in sub for Arctic


June 18, 2010 Updated Jul 29, 2010 at 3:17 PM EDT

Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew a military helicopter around an iceberg, sailed a warship, and dove in a navy submarine, heralding his country's claim to the resource-rich Arctic.

On day three of a five-day visit to the far north, Harper took part in a military exercise trumpeting Canada's sovereignty over a large Arctic tract east of Baffin Island, where Russian and US submarines are said to prowl.

"With other countries probing our north by sea and in the air, the work you are doing here to protect our sovereignty has never been more important," Harper told sailors on the deck of HMCS Toronto.

"Protecting national sovereignty, the integrity of our borders, is the first and foremost responsibility of a national government," he said.

Later, Harper zipped across Frobisher Bay to the submarine HMCS Corner Brook and took its controls as it slipped beneath the icy waters for a 30-minute trip.

His office told AFP he took the controls of a large Sea King helicopter as it flew past an iceberg, and briefly steered the warship HMCS Toronto.

Five countries bordering the Arctic -- Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States -- claim overlapping parts of the Arctic, which is estimated to hold 90 billion untapped barrels of oil.

Moscow believes it should control the Northern Sea Route, a passage that stretches from Asia to Europe across northern Russia.

In 2007, Russian submariners planted a flag on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole in a symbolic staking of its claim over the region.

Canada, meanwhile, has claimed the famed Northwest Passage, but is at odds with the United States which considers it to be international waters. The two allies also cannot agree on the resource-rich Beaufort Sea, which touches both Alaska and Canada's northern territories.

Since becoming prime minister in 2006, Harper has made Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic a key priority of his government. This is Harper's third trip to the region as prime minister.

Last year, Canada announced it was stepping up its military alertness along its northern frontier in response to Russia "testing" its boundaries with military flights skirting the border, which had not seen since the Cold War.

Ottawa responded with plans for a sensor net, more navy patrols and a military training camp in the far north.

In its fifth year, the annual military exercises are the biggest they have ever been, and include for the first time anti-submarine measures as well as the deployment of a new elite Arctic commando unit.

On Tuesday, Harper held a cabinet meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut and dined on seal in support of Canada's maligned seal trade.

He also announced the creation of a northern economic development agency with 50 million Canadian dollars (45 million US) at its disposal to develop northern infrastructure and aid locals.

Later in the week, Harper will travel to the Inuit hamlet Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, and to Yellowknife and Whitehorse, the regional capitals of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon respectively.

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