Hans Island: a housewarming gift for Greenland?

Aerial view of Hans Island, with Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the background. (Toubletap/Creative Commons)
A pair of Canadian researchers wants Ottawa to give the people of Greenland a rather peculiar housewarming gift as the autonomous Danish territory gets ready to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its self-rule in June of next year.

Heather Exner-Pirot and Adam Lajeunesse are suggesting the federal government simply gift the disputed Hans Island, a barren uninhabited islet, located halfway between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and northwestern Greenland, to the people of Greenland and the Kingdom of Denmark in a grand gesture of good will.

“Gifting Hans Island in symbolic recognition of Greenlandic self-determination would be consistent with the Trudeau Liberals’ objective of improving its relationship with Indigenous people,” Exner-Pirot and Lajeunesse wrote in a paper entitled Hans Island: A Housewarming Gift.

“It could and would need to be done alongside Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (national Inuit organization) and the Government of Nunavut, but in so doing would provide an internationally precedent-setting gesture.”

Reinforcing Canada’s brand

Every few years, Hans Island, which covers an area of only 1.3 sq. km, makes international headlines or becomes the subject of social media memes about the “world’s most civilized conflict” between Canada and Denmark.

Last month officials in Ottawa, Copenhagen and Nuuk announced that they plan to create a joint task force to explore options and provide recommendations on how to resolve outstanding boundary issues in the Arctic between the two nations, including the sovereignty over Hans Island, a process that could take years.

“Canada is looking forward to fruitful bilateral discussions with the Kingdom of Denmark under this newly established Task Force,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Elizabeth Reid said in an emailed statement. “This work is a demonstration of our excellent cooperation with Denmark in the Arctic and our collective leadership in the region.”

But Exner-Pirot and Lajeunesse argue that it’s time for a radical solution to the last land dispute in the entire Arctic, which has dogged diplomats and lawyers for decades.

Exner-Pirot, managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, says the island has no intrinsic value for Canada.

Most Canadians didn’t even know about Hans Island until 1973 when Copenhagen and Ottawa discovered their conflicting claims to the island while drawing the 2,685 kilometre-long maritime boundary between Canada and Greenland.

“There is zero to lose and what we gain out of it I think is reinforcing Canada’s brand as a country that’s generous, as a country that’s friendly,” Exner-Pirot said. “There is no economic value, there is not really a legal value in terms of boundaries to Hans Island, it’s literally just about that rock.”

Political posturing
The crew of Danish warship Vedderen perform a flag raising ceremony on the uninhabitated Hans Island off northwestern Greenland, in this Aug. 13, 2002 file photo. A pair of Arctic experts from Canada is proposing a novel solution to who controls an ice-bound speck of an island midway between the two countries. (Polfoto, Vedderen/The Canadian Press/AP Photo)

Ever since the dispute over Hans Island emerged, Denmark and Canada have engaged in some political posturing, including the deployment of military aircraft and ships, as well the occasional raising of flags by visiting soldiers and politicians.

The Hans Island dispute has been dubbed the “most civilized conflict” in the world, with reports of Danish and Canadian soldiers leaving bottles of schnapps and Canadian Club whiskey for each other.

The dispute has nevertheless become a tiny irritant in the otherwise cloudless relationship between the two NATO allies.

Inspired by a Norwegian campaign

Exner-Pirot says they got inspired by a Norwegian social media campaign that called on Oslo to present neighbouring Finland, which in 2017 was celebrating the centenary of its independence from Russia, the peak of the 1,361-metre high Mount Halti.

The Facebook campaign, which collected 17,000 signatures, wanted to move the border line just 37 metres up the mountain slope to pass over the mountaintop and correct a geographical incongruity, as the Finnish border in the area is situated most of the way up the mountainside at an altitude of 1,324 metres.

Exner-Pirot said she and Lajeunesse, the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Arctic Marine Security at the Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, thought this was the perfect solution for the Hans Island dispute.

“It was great PR, they both looked very gregarious and peaceful and friendly – the whole Nordic brand,” Exner-Pirot said. “We thought this was a perfect solution for Hans Island. What if Canada gifted Hans Island to Greenland as a member of the Kingdom of Denmark? That probably would be the easiest way to resolve this issue.”

No constitutional constraints

It would also be the most elegant solution to the question who owns the island, she said.

“By gifting it we win since it was ours to give away in the first place,” Exner-Pirot said. “It would be a hard gift for Denmark to refuse.”

The Facebook campaign to gift Mount Halti was unsuccessful, however, because under Norway’s constitution not an inch of the country’s sovereign territory can be surrendered even to a friendly neighbour like Finland.

Exner-Pirot said as far as she knows no such constitutional constraints exist in Canada’s case. Gifting Hans Island also does not affect the already settled maritime boundary or Canada’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the area, she added.

“The lawyers might want to take more time with this as they always do but this is a political problem and requires a political solution,” Exner-Pirot said.

Other possible solutions to the Hans Island dispute include dividing it equally by connecting the dots of the existing maritime boundary points articulated in the Nares Strait by Canada and Denmark in 1973; or establishing an International Park, held in trust by both Canada and Denmark in consultation with the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and off limits to development or military activity, Exner-Pirot and Lajeunesse say.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Canada and Denmark set up joint task force to resolve Arctic boundary issues, Radio Canada International

Finland: Norway will not give away mountain peak, The Independent Barents Observer

Norway: Looking back at the 2010 Norway – Russia deal on Arctic borders, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Oslo and Moscow agree about joint exploration of Arctic borderland, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Norway and Sweden in quarrel over cross-border reindeer grazing, The Independent Barents Observer

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

One thought on “Hans Island: a housewarming gift for Greenland?

  • Wednesday, September 19, 2018 at 08:01

    You’ve got great insights about the Article, Thanks and keep up the good work!

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