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Canada is angling to assume a leadership role in international polar affairs by convening a meeting of Arctic foreign ministers in March ahead of a G8 gathering to be held in Quebec, Canwest News Service has learned.


The Arctic summit, scheduled to take place just north of Ottawa in Chelsea, Que., is aimed at encouraging "new thinking on economic development and environmental protection" in a way that would allow the five Arctic Ocean coastal states — Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the U.S. — to exploit opportunities for oil and gas production while preserving fragile ecosystems, according to a statement to be released Wednesday by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.


"This meeting will provide an opportunity for Arctic Ocean coastal states to prepare for and encourage development that has positive benefits," Cannon states. "Over time, increased access to the region will result in new opportunities and challenges. It is important that we plan now for the future. The Arctic Ocean coastal states are in a unique position to set the agenda for responsible management in the region."


The five Arctic nations issued a joint declaration after a meeting in Greenland in May 2008 pledging to avoid territorial conflicts in the region and to co-operate in balancing economic opportunities — including offshore petroleum operations, shipping and tourism — with environmental conservation.


Melting Arctic sea ice has recently prompted major investments in northern infrastructure by all five nations as they anticipate increased activity in the region. But uncertainty lingers over whether the area's future will be shaped largely by the Arctic Ocean's five neighbouring states or by broader, multinational bodies such as the Arctic Council, the European Union and the United Nations.


"This is a priority for the Canadian government, and Canada is an international leader on northern issues at the Arctic Council and in other forums," Cannon will announce Wednesday. "The Arctic is beginning to experience significant change . . . The objective of this meeting is to encourage new thinking on economic development and environmental protection in the region from the perspective of the Arctic Ocean coastal states."


The Arctic meeting in Chelsea, to be held March 29, is to be followed by a G8 foreign ministers' meeting in nearby Gatineau, Que., on March 29 and 30.


(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette)

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