MacKay talks foreign policy in Whitehorse

Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay used podium time at a diplomatic forum Monday to bolster the public image of Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay used podium time at a diplomatic forum Monday to bolster the public image of Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

He addressed about 70 foreign ambassadors.

“Afghanistan is an incubator for terrorism,” said MacKay during his introductory address to the 2006 Diplomatic Forum, which is being held this week at the Yukon Convention Centre.

“We are there at the invitation of the Afghan people to help rebuild Afghanistan with many other countries,” he said.

“We are there to demonstrate Canadian leadership on the world stage.”

In his speech, MacKay touched on economic development and environmental protection in Canada’s North.

Arctic sovereignty is weighing heavily on the government’s mind and budget — particularly its ability to patrol northern waters, he said.

“The Northwest Passage is Canadian, not international territory, and we are taking steps to ensure our position is respected by the international community.”

A “strengthened, responsible and respectful” relationship with the US topped MacKay’s list of foreign policy priorities.

He mentioned Canada’s “reconstruction and reconciliation” role in international venues, such as Haiti and the Darfur region of Sudan, and defended his government’s decision to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority, led by Hamas.

“Hamas is listed as a terrorist entity under Canadian legislation, which bars any funding whatsoever that risks supporting that organization in any way.”

But MacKay’s main focus was Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is Canada’s largest recipient of bilateral development assistance,” he said, citing a $1-billion commitment over 10 years.

“We will proceed with the acquisition of land and construction of a chancery, official residence and staff housing for Canada’s embassy in Kabul.”

MacKay shared a personal anecdote of meeting Afghan children who were able to attend school thanks to Canada’s intervention.

“That is the surest sign of progress being made.”

Reporters were asked to leave for in-camera questions from foreign diplomats.

Ottawa must tread “very carefully” in its negotiations with Alaska and the US over balancing economic development interests, such as a natural gas pipeline, against environmental and cultural interests, such as protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, MacKay said in a subsequent news conference.

“We have engaged very actively with the United States on a whole number of fronts, including the Western Hemisphere travel initiative … these issues are going to continue to be dealt with at the highest levels.

“When I have meetings with (US Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice, when the prime minister meets with the president, when Stockwell Day meets with his counterparts on environmental issues, we’re working very hard to elevate the discussion to get back to what I feel are respectful business-like relations, and find solutions.”

The ambassadors MacKay addressed were from “every region” around the world, including Asia, Africa, Europe and South America, said J.P. Flament, the Yukon’s director of intergovernmental relations.

“They’re here to learn about the Yukon as a region of Canada and issues of importance to the North,” said Flament.

“Canada and the three territories are collaborating (to host the event).

“It’s strictly federal and the local jurisdiction.

“Yukon is hosting for the first time.”

The forum has not been held North of 60 before.

It will include panel discussions on topics such as climate change, economic development and co-operative governance with First Nations.

“We are always looking for effective ways of keeping the North’s interests present on the national stage, and this event provides the perfect opportunity to further that objective,” Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie said in a release.

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik and Northwest Territories Premier Joe Handley are attending the conference, as is Michael Chong, the federal minister of

Intergovernmental Affairs and minister for Sport.

Chong announced $7 million in total funding from Ottawa for the 2007 Canada Winter Games, plus infrastructure funding for the Canada Games Centre and athletes’ village.

House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken is also attending the forum.