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Canada, Russia, continue to talk as part of Arctic Council meeting in Yellowknife

YELLOWKNIFE - Canada may be upset at Russia over Ukraine, but conversations with the bear continue over the Arctic.

Government officials confirm that a Russian delegation is attending a meeting in Yellowknife this week held by the Arctic Council, an eight-member group of countries that ring the North. All members are attending, even though the council includes some of Russia's harshest critics, such as Canada and the United States.

"The prime minister has instructed Canadian officials to review all bilateral interactions with Russia," said Amanda Gordon, spokeswoman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the current head of the council.

"For the moment, however, Arctic Council work does continue as planned."

The Yellowknife meeting began Tuesday and continues until Thursday. The delegations are being led by bureaucrats, not politicians, and are all closed to the media.

It's the second time senior Arctic officials have met since Canada assumed its two-year chairmanship of the council.

In The Hague on Tuesday, Harper said that Russia continues to co-operate in the Arctic.

"To this point, they have been working with the international community on the continental shelf delineation process and they have been adhering to that and they have been playing according to those rules so far."

But earlier this week, Harper questioned the mentality of the Russian government which has said Canada has no right to speak out against Russia's moves against Ukraine. Some government departments have already reduced their contact with Russia.

Speaking Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said her department is one of them.

"In my own portfolio we have looked at where there are points of contact, and we have stopped those points of contact," she said. "We are taking this very seriously, and it goes through the entire government."

Most of the council's work involves collecting and sharing of scientific, environmental and social information between member countries and six aboriginal groups that have permanent observer status. The council has negotiated binding agreements that include deals on Arctic search and rescue and the prevention of oilspills.

Security concerns are not part of the council's mandate.

International politicians expressed concerns earlier this month about how Russia's actions in Ukraine may affect Arctic relations.

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton said Russia's reopening of old Soviet military bases in the Arctic could be seen in a different light given its actions in Ukraine. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson made similar comments.

Observers say NATO hasn't seen any moves yet in the Russian Arctic that alarm them.

"NATO countries keep a close eye on Russian military activities and nothing in the Arctic, so far, has caused them any concern," said Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia and author of several books on the Arctic.

"That said, NATO countries will certainly be keeping an even closer eye on Russia from now on.

"The Russians have been quite co-operative in the Arctic during the past decade, probably because they realize how expensive it would be to take another approach, especially one involving militarization."

By Bob Weber in Edmonton


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