Denmark and Canada Have Been Feuding over An Island for Decades, Here's Why

Hans Island is located in the middle of the Nares Strait in Arctic Sea
Hans Island is located in the middle of the Nares Strait in Arctic Sea | © Toubletap / Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Aliki Seferou
19 July 2018

A small island in the Arctic Sea is the bone of contention between Denmark and Canada. For almost a hundred years, the two countries have been trying to solve this dispute in a rather unorthodox way. Not through military power plays or diplomacy, but instead by using the countries’ traditional liquors.

The reason behind the ongoing conflict between the two countries is none other than Hans Island, a small, uninhabited rocky island located in the middle of the 35-kilometre-wide (21.748 miles) strait named Kennedy Channel of Nares that separates Nuvanut from Greenland, the latter being under Danish governmental rule since 1815. As international law dictates, states have control over territorial waters up to 22.2 kilometres (13.79 miles) from shore, so the 1.3-square-kilometre (0.5 square miles) Hans Island is part of both the Greenlandic and Canadian radius.

The territorial dispute was nearly resolved in 1933 when the judicial organ (Permanent Court of International Justice ) of the League of Nations came to a decision in favour of Denmark. Yet, due to the fact that the League of Nations was dissolved nearly a decade later and replaced by the United Nations, the ruling has been declared invalid and the island’s legal owner remains unknown.

For several years, both countries disdained the issue of the island’s ownership and even when in the early 1970s they reached an agreement for the demarcation of maritime borders in the Arctic, Hans Island was once again left out of the negotiations.

Hans Island is located in the middle of the Nares Strait in Arctic Sea | © Toubletap / Wikimedia Commons

The matter resurfaced in 1984 when the Danish minister for Greenland landed on the island with a helicopter and left a bottle of the typical Danish drink schnapps and a sign proclaiming “Welcome to the Danish Island.” In turn, the Canadians answered with the same lighthearted and humorous way and followed by leaving a bottle of Canadian whisky on the island.

According to Peter Takso Jensen, who had been working for more than two decades at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the Legal Service, “when Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of schnapps. And when Canadian military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian Club and a sign saying ‘Welcome to Canada’.”

This gift exchange game went on for several decades between Danish and Canadian soldiers who landed on the island and dismantled the flagpoles they’d find there and then replace them with their own. In 2005, along with their national flag, Canadian soldiers also installed a traditional Inuit stone marker (Inukshuk) with a plaque. Over three decades, negotiations about the status of the island have continued and tension between the two countries has not been uncommon. Today, there is still no definite conclusion.

On May 23, 2018, Canadian and Danish authorities announced a joint task force to settle the dispute over Hans Island with both countries’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs feeling confident that they’ll soon be able to soon resolve their boundary issues peacefully.

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