Canada’s incoming Conservative government was supposed to forge warmer relations with Washington. But the Canadian prime minster-designate, Stephen Harper has already started making decidedly frosty noises about the United States meddling in some of the coldest places on Earth:

… on Thursday as the Prime Minister-elect used his first post-election press conference to take direct aim at David Wilkins, the US ambassador to Canada, who last week described the North-west Passage as “neutral waters”.

Mr Harper was not asked by reporters about the ambassador’s comment, but he refused to let it pass unchallenged.

“The United States defends its sovereignty, the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty,” he said. “It is the Canadian government we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States.”

Some background, from the Toronto Star:

… most media hadn’t paid attention to Wilkins’ remarks, largely because they weren’t news. The United States, as well as Japan and the European Union, insist that the ice-choked passage, which winds through the archipelago of the Canadian Arctic to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is an international waterway.

Theoretically, Canada disagrees. But since 1945, it has signed a host of secret treaties that give American warships and submarines unimpeded access to these and other Canadian waters.

In 1988, Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and U.S. president Ronald Reagan signed a pact whereby Washington agreed to tell Ottawa before sending non-military ships through the Northwest Passage.

In return, Ottawa agreed to never say no.

Harper wants to spend lots of Canadian dollars on underwater sensors and a new deep-water harbour in Iqaluit. But as the Star piece points out, the practical effect of all this posturing is more or less nil:

Is Harper prepared to tear up the treaties that already give the U.S. effective carte blanche in the Arctic? Would his three icebreakers attempt to ram the American fleet if it decided to steam through the Northwest Passage?

If his underwater sensors detect a U.S. submarine skulking along the coast of Ellesmere Island, would he have the Canadian Forces drop depth charges?

Still, it’s symbolically important. Asserting sovereignty over its sparcely populated but resource-rich Arctic archipeligo is of major symbolic significance for Ottawa, and has in recent years become one of Canada’s major foreign and defence policy objectives.

But it has become a bigger issue in recent years. With global warming making the Arctic region increasingly accessible, there is an increased interest in exploring for fossil fuels and trade routes. Long-dormant border disputes among the normally friendly Arctic countries suddenly have real consequences and are being re-examined.

Sometimes it is just symbolic. Canada’s maritime border with Greenland is fairly settled — with one tiny exception. Hence last summer’s kerfuffle with Denmark over barren Hans Island.

But there are also places where serious oil exploration, fishing and shipping rights are at stake. For example, there’s the small matter of the 30-year-old dispute between the United States and Canada over how Alaska’s border with Canada’s Yukon Territory extends into the Beaufort Sea. While Canada asserts that Alaska’s long straight land border along 140° west longitude should extend into the sea, the U.S. argues that the maritime border should be perpendicular to the shoreline, resulting in a triangular wedge of disputed — and potentially oil-rich — ocean territory just northeast of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The US Minerals Management Service, which oversees drilling on the United States’ continental shelf, estimates that the Beaufort Sea could contain about 7 billion barrels of oil and 32 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In August 2004, the Minerals Management Service sold leases for oil development including a handful of tracts inside the disputed region, prompting a diplomatic protest from Ottawa. The State Department responded by reaffirming the American claim.

This is not the last we will have heard of this issue.