Canada and Denmark reach deal to divide uninhabited Arctic island, announcement expected June 14

The Canadian government posted an order-in-council this week confirming the Hans Island deal. The government plans to announce the details Tuesday. (CBC News)

By Ashley Burke, CBC News

Experts call deal a symbolic move to show a united front against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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

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

Martin Breum, a Copenhagen journalist and expert on the Arctic, said he’s been briefed by government officials in Denmark on parts of the deal. He said the settlement shows the two countries agreed to split the 1.3-square-kilometre rock almost down the middle.

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

“It’s not exactly a 50/50 share,” he said. “They’re 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 slightly bigger than the Canadian.”

The Canadian government is expected on Tuesday to present the deal — 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 joined together in a united front against the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Breum said that while both governments will say it’s a “fabulous deal,” it’s taken a “really long time to resolve a very, very small issue.”

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

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

‘Beautiful … worthless’

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

Breum visited the island by helicopter in 2018 and describes it as a “beautiful,” desolate piece of history. He said the only artifacts there are the remnants of Canadian and Danish flags and placards staking their claims over the years.

“You actually feel history right there,” said Breum. “You feel the closeness of both nations. And then knowing that you are on top of the 50-year-old conflict of international magnitude is really odd because there’s nothing there.

“It’s worthless. There’s no minerals, there is no oil in the waters next to it.”

Some international media outlets have nicknamed the dispute the “whisky 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 with the forces of armies,” the disagreement between Canada and Denmark would “better suit a dinner party than a battlefield: it comes down to B.Y.O.B.”

Military ships visiting the island in the 1980s planted flags and bottles of Canadian whiskey or Danish schnapps to stake their claims. That suddenly stopped when both countries decided they needed to work out their differences as allies, said Breum.

The crew of the Danish warship Vedderen perform a flag raising ceremony on uninhabitated Hans Island in August 2002. (Polfoto, Vedderen/The Canadian Press/AP Photo)

There wasn’t significant movement on the file until 2018, when a multinational task force took up the matter, said Breum.

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

It’s all about the symbolism

“There’s no significance of the border, except the signal it sends to the world that we can resolve our disputes in a friendly way,” said Byers.

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’s the symbolism that matters to the two nations.

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

Greenland’s Inuit have long used Hans Island as a staging point when hunting in the area, according to media reports.

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) is the legal representative of the Inuit of Nunavut 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 possible because of Inuit use and occupancy.”

“The dispute between Canada and Denmark over Tartupaluk or Hans Island has never caused issues for Inuit,” said Kotierk in a media statement. “Regardless, it is great to see Canada and Denmark taking measures to resolve this boundary dispute.”

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

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

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Inuit in northwestern Canada warn new law could entrench federal authority of Beaufort Sea, CBC News

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