Canada and Denmark reach an agreement to divide the uninhabited arctic island | CBC News

Canada and Denmark have reached an agreement to carve up a small uninhabited island in the Arctic, ending a nearly 50-year international dispute between two friendly countries.

The Canadian government published an order in council this week confirming the Hans Island deal. The government plans to announce the details on Tuesday.

Martin Breum, a Copenhagen-based journalist and Arctic expert, said Danish government officials have briefed him on parts of the deal. He said the deal shows that the two countries agreed to split the 1.3 square kilometer rock almost in half.

A border that will separate the countries will follow a rift in the island that runs from north to south, Breum said.

“It’s not exactly a 50/50 turnout,” he said. “They are sharing the island in two halves. One will be Canadian, the other will be part of Greenland, which is part of the Danish kingdom.

“It’s a matter of a few percentages and the Greenland part will be a little bit bigger than the Canadian part.”

The Canadian government is expected to present the agreement on Tuesday, first reported by the Globe and Mail, as an example of how countries can resolve international disputes peacefully under the rules-based international order. The move comes as NATO allies have come together in a united front against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Copenhagen journalist and author Martin Breum visits Hans Island in 2018. (Submitted by Martin Breum)

Breum said that while both governments will say it is a “terrific deal,” it has taken “a long time to resolve a very, very small problem.”

“This is an example of how even the smallest piece of territory can excite governments to the point where even allies disagree for decades,” he said.

The Hans Island dispute dates back to 1973, when Canada and Denmark attempted to establish a border across the Nares Strait waterway.


Hans Island shoots vertically 180 meters from the icy waters between Canada and Greenland. Both countries are exactly 18 kilometers from the island, which allows them to claim the rock under international law.

Breum visited the island by helicopter in 2018 and describes it as a “beautiful and desolate” piece of history. He said the only artifacts there are the remnants of the Canadian and Danish flags and banners that have claimed their rights over the years.

“You really feel the history right there,” Breum said. “You feel the closeness of both nations. And then knowing that you’re at the helm of the 50-year conflict of international magnitude is really weird because there’s nothing there.

“It has no value. There are no minerals, there is no oil in the waters next to it.”

Some international media outlets have dubbed the dispute the “whiskey war” or the most “polite” of all territorial conflicts.

The New York Times said that while other international disputes “can be ugly affairs, waged with all the nastiness of a divorce, backed by the might of the armies,” the disagreement between Canada and Denmark “would be better for dinner than a battlefield: it all comes down to BYOB”

Military ships that visited the island in the 1980s planted flags and bottles of Canadian whiskey or Danish liquor to claim their rights. That came to a sudden stop when both countries decided they needed to work out their differences as allies, Breum said.

The crew of the Danish warship Vedderen perform a flag-raising ceremony on the uninhabited Hans Island in August 2002. (Polfoto/The Associated Press)

There was no significant movement on the file until 2018, when a multinational task force took up the matter, Breum said.

Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, has been calling for a peaceful resolution of the dispute for decades. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine created the “right moment” for countries to finally solve the problem once and for all.

It’s all about the symbolism

“The border doesn’t matter, except the signal it sends to the world that we can resolve our disputes amicably,” Byers said.

Byers says the two countries decided to draw a line along a geological feature that can be seen on satellite images. He said border guards will not be present because it is the symbolism that matters to the two nations.

“It’s a novelty,” he said. “It is possible that this will become a tourist destination.”

Greenland’s Inuit have long used Hans Island as a starting point for hunting in the area, according to news reports.

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) is the legal representative of the Nunavut Inuit for the purposes of native treaty rights and treaty negotiation.

The organization’s president, Aluki Kotierk, said “Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic is only made possible by Inuit use and occupation.”

“The dispute between Canada and Denmark over Tartupaluk or Hans Island has never caused problems for the Inuit,” Kotierk said in a press release. “Regardless, it’s great to see Canada and Denmark taking action to resolve this border dispute.”

Global Affairs Canada said that, due to a media embargo in place until tomorrow’s event, it is “politely declining” the CBC’s request for comment on the deal.

Russia has planted flags claiming the Arctic region. A mini submarine dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag on the ocean floor below the North Pole in 2007 in an attempt to claim the region’s oil and minerals.

Leave a Comment