Inuit leaders welcome Canada, Denmark agreement on Arctic island

“The boundary on Tartupaluk will mark the very close ties between our countries, people and culture,” said Greenland’s Prime Minister Mute Bourup Egede, pictured in Ottawa on Tuesday for the signing of the agreement. “It will signal the beginning of a closer partnership and cooperation between us in areas of shared interest and of particular benefit to Inuit and local people living in Avanersuaq, Kalaallit Nunaat [Greenland], and Nunavut, Canada.” (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
Canada and Denmark put their longstanding Hans Island dispute to bed on Tuesday, signing an agreement to divide the small rocky piece of land between the two countries, a deal applauded by Inuit leaders.

The tiny island, referred to as Tartupaluk in the Inuit language, is located between Greenland and Canada in Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait. 

Canada and Denmark ended up roughly dividing the 1.2 km² island down the middle between them.

Discussions on the border regime for eventual visitors to Hans Island are still ongoing, but for Inuit in Canada’s Arctic territory of Nunavut and Greenland’s county of Avanersuaq, the island will remain completely accessible.

“Nunavut is excited to learn about the new changes to our territory’s boundaries and view this agreement as a benefit to Inuit and local communities,” P.J. Akeeagok, the premier of Nunavut, said in statement.

“Our government is also encouraged to see that the agreement calls for continued access to and freedom of movement on the entirety of Tartupaluk island, including for hunting, fishing and other related cultural, traditional, historic and future activities for the Inuit of Nunavut and Kalaallit Nunaat [Greenland].”

The decades-old dispute between Denmark and Canada over Hans Island, the tiny, barren and uninhabited rock in the Arctic, come to an end on Tuesday. (The Associated Press via The Canadian Press)

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization in Canada, said the agreement underlined the importance of Indigenous land use in the Arctic when it comes to national jurisdiction. 

“For Inuit, our lands, waters and ice form a singular homeland that we used, crossed and inhabited freely before formal boundaries were created by political jurisdictions,” Obed said. “Our use of these areas underlie claims to sovereignty by nation states.”

50-year old dispute

The Hans Island dispute goes back to the 1970s when the issue of what to do with the small rock island came up as Ottawa and Copenhagen were establishing the maritime boundary between Canada and Greenland, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

The island sits on the demarcation line.

There are no people or vegetation on the island, but it became the site of national posturing in the ensuing years with both Canada and Denmark officials making occasional visits, even occasionally with navy vessels.

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)

The new boundary agreed to on Hans Island runs from north to south along a ravine.

Canada and Denmark’s foreign ministers said the agreement was an example of nations resolving territorial disputes peacefully, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The Arctic is a beacon for international cooperation, where the rule of law prevails,” Canada’s Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said.  

“As global security is being threatened, it’s more important than ever for democracies like Canada and the Kingdom of Denmark to work together alongside Indigenous peoples, to resolve our differences in accordance with international law.”

Prime Minister of Greenland Mute Bourup Egede, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Denmark Jeppe Kofod, centre, and Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly share a three-way handshake after signing an agreement that will establish a land border between Canada and the Kingdom of Denmark on Hans Island, an Arctic island between Nunavut and Greenland, in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Nunavut’s Premier P.J. Akeeagok (back second from right) and Canada’s Northern Affairs Minisiter Dan Vandal (right) look on. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s foreign minister, said the agreement was an affirmation of what can be achieved when countries resolve their issues through discussion and compromise. 

“I hope that our negotiation and the spirit of this agreement may inspire others,” Kofod said. “This is much needed at a time when respect for the international rules-based order is under pressure.”

The inset on the map below showing the boundry ageed to between Canada and Denmark on Hans Island. (Government of Canada)

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

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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