[JURIST] Canadian Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper [official website], elected earlier this week and slated to be sworn in February 6 by Canada's Governor-General [official website], went out of his way at his first news conference [transcript] Thursday to reassert the importance of Canada's Arctic sovereignty. Responding to a comment by US Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins [official profile] that the Northwest Passage through the Arctic between the Atlantic and the Pacific was "neutral waters", Harper insisted that Canada could defend its legal claim to the Passage [backgrounder]. "The United States defends its sovereignty and the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty," he said. "It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States." During the election campaign he said his government would deploy three new military icebreakers [speech transcript; policy statement] in the area and establish a series of listening posts. US vessels and submarines have transited the Passage for years, and while Canada has formally objected, it has generally turned a blind eye to the incursions. Recently, however, the Passage has shown signs of melting [CNN report], and if the trend continues it could become a more usable global navigation channel that could cut thousands of miles off traditional Europe-Pacific routes through the Panama canal, significantly raising the stakes on the sovereignty issue [backgrounder]. While Harper and his Conservative Party [official website] are seen as more inclined towards the US than the outgoing Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, Harper's comments are also seen as a signal to the US and to Canadians of all political stripes that he will not be a pushover. CBC News has more.