History / Politics

The Island at the Centre of a Danish-Canadian Border Dispute

In the Kennedy Straights between Denmark (Greenland) and Canada (Nunavut) lies a large rock. It’s Hans Island, and it has been disputed territory of two the nations since the 1970s, when the ‘Whisky Wars’ began…

Xander Brett

This is a war with flare-ups driven largely by comical press attention. But visits from respective government ministers have caused serious, and quite deserved, diplomatic storms. The island was discovered during USS Polaris’ return trip in the 1870s. In 1933, the Permanent Court of International Justice declared the island in favour of Denmark, with the Danish pointing to geological evidence linking the island to Greenland. But in the 1970s, during talks on the continental shelf with the United Nations, it was back to square one after geographical uncertainty. Then, in 1984, the Danish Minister for Greenland planted the Danish flag on the island and left a message reading ‘Velkommen til den danske ø’ (‘Welcome to the Danish Island’), along with a bottle of Gammel Dansk aquavit. And the Canadians reciprocated by planning the Canadian flag and a bottle of Canadian Club whisky.

Hans Island is uninhabited, though it is thought to have been part of Inuit hunting grounds since the 14th century. The nearest settlements are Alert, Canada (198km away, pop. 62) and Siorapaluk, Denmark (349km away, pop. 68). It lies, indeed, on the exact line of the border. But, unlike the curious case of Märket rock in the Åland archipelago (divided, to reflect the line, equally between Sweden and Finland), no such plans have been struck on Hans, though it was thought to form part of boundary negotiations in 2012 and 2018. Things were peaceful for years until, in 2005, a diplomatic storm erupted when Canadian Defence Minister Bill Graham visited the island unannounced. Peter Taksø-Jensen, head of the International Law department at Denmark’s foreign ministry, said he had complained, and things quietened down. Nowadays, certainly, the only war is one of internet searches, with the competition on as to which country can plaster Google with most messages claiming Hans as their territory. And it’s not for me to say who’s winning!

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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