OTTAWA – Canada and Russia will hold a joint conference on Arctic co-operation next month in Ottawa, despite differences over Syria and Ukraine.
Pam Goldsmith-Jones, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, said Canada profoundly disagrees with Russia’s conduct in Ukraine and Syria.
But the two countries have to talk because between them they control three quarters of the Arctic — Russia, half and Canada a quarter.
“Preventing scientists from these countries from talking to one another is irrational. Our government wishes to be rational,” she said in a speech Thursday at Carleton University in Ottawa, where the November conference will be held.
“We wish to establish links with Russia — cautiously — because we believe that that serves the interests of Canadians and Russians,” she added, as well as “those in Ukraine and Syria.”
Russia backs separatist rebels in Ukraine’s east after annexing its Crimea region in 2014, while its military supports Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s long-running civil war.
Goldsmith-Jones was standing in for Dion, who was called away to join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Jerusalem for Friday’s funeral for Israeli statesman Shimon Peres.
Dion has said in the past that Canada must re-engage Russia because of its shared interest in the North.
But the new Liberal government has said little about Arctic strategy. The speech Goldsmith-Jones delivered emphasized addressing climate change and the well-being of indigenous people living there.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper highlighted the Arctic in both domestic and foreign policy, making an annual August trip there.
But his government also distanced itself from Russia in the Arctic after its controversial involvement in Ukraine.
The Conservative opposition has been highly critical of the new Liberal approach to engage Russia, accusing it of “cozying up” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Dion and Trudeau aren’t shying away from expressing their displeasure with the Russians as part of their renewed engagement, Goldsmith-Jones said.
“They both signalled our profound disagreement with some of Russia’s policies in Ukraine and Syria. But we also said ‘we want to talk with you’.”
Leona Aglukkaq, the former Conservative MP for Nunavut who was environment minister in the previous government, declined comment on the plan to re-engage Russia. But she called on the government to establish a northern strategy.
“When I was in government, we had a northern strategy that we introduced that dealt with the challenges the Arctic Council identified 20 years ago, and what is that policy now?” she asked in an interview on the sidelines of Thursday’s gathering.
Goldsmith-Jones said the Liberals are focused on promoting the “responsible extraction of resources” while preserving a fragile ecosystem.