Canada and Denmark keep relations warm in Arctic...
Bookmark and Share
Dec 21, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

Canada and Denmark keep relations warm in Arctic island dispute

In 1973, Canada and Denmark agreed to a treaty that established the boundary between Canada and Greenland. The boundary-makers drew a series of lines up the middle, and all went swimmingly until they bumped into Hans Island


It’s hard to imagine a less likely trigger point between two more unlikely combatants than rocky, chilly, empty Hans Island up near the top of the globe.

But as University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers ruefully observes, “wars have been fought in the past over seemingly small things.”

He thinks Canada and Denmark will want to avoid such a rotten state of affairs.

What’s more, he told the Star, current political events provide a window — and this season of peace offers a powerful incentive — to melt at least some of the diplomatic iciness in the Arctic.

Hans Island is a 1.2-square-km rock in the Kennedy Channel of the Nares Strait between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Denmark’s Greenland.

In practical terms, it’s worthless (even if it would likely incite bidding wars in the real-estate markets of Vancouver or Toronto).

Just before Christmas in 1973, Canada and Denmark agreed to a treaty that established the boundary between Canada and Greenland.

The boundary-makers drew a series of geodesic lines up the middle of the waterway, and all went swimmingly until they bumped into Hans Island. Since their mandate was to draw maritime, not land divisions, they hopped over it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Canada claimed Hans as Canadian. Denmark assumed it to be Danish. And the two sides have not seen eye to eye on Hans since.

Though Hans Island has no resources of its own, the dispute over it has provided a rich lode of comic interludes.

In 2006, an Ottawa university student proclaimed himself Prince of Hans Island. He dubbed it Tartupaluk — apparently its Greenlandic name — and announced the independence of his principality.

Over the years, the respective navies have made forays to the chunk of rock, leaving symbolic claims to the place — Danish schnapps or Canadian whisky.

Ten years ago, an agreement required each nation to inform the other before visiting.

Enter Michael Byers and his Danish colleague, Michael Boss, a professor from Aarhus University.

At a conference at the Danish school in November, the two put forward the Aarhus Declaration — which proposes that the dispute over Hans Island be resolved by “creating a condominium of shared authority.”

Under such collaboration, Hans Island could even be deemed “an international park symbolizing the peaceful relations among the peoples of the Arctic managed jointly by the governments of Nunavut and Greenland.”

There is precedence for such a scheme, Byers explained.

In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees established Pheasant Island in Bidasoa River between Spain and France as a condominium under joint sovereignty. And the last few centuries have passed without apparent hostilities over the matter.

Byers said he has thought about such a plan for years, but “it didn’t seem like something the Harper government would likely seize upon.”

Recent changes of government in Canada and Denmark offer an opportunity, he said.

It might create momentum, he hoped, to addressing other more difficult issues in the Arctic.

However unlikely it seems now, “one can never discount the possibility that, in the future, Hans Island could cause friction,” Byers said.

“Wise statesmen and diplomats seek to resolve small problems while they’re small.”

Since 2005, the countries have said they will negotiate the issue and look for a solution.

“We’ve just offered them one. I’m hopeful that the new government in both countries will take a hard look at our proposal.”

Its beauty, he said, is that it would resolve the dispute without either country having to surrender territory or losing face.

In fact, the only real loser, it seems, would be the Prince of Tartupaluk.

Toronto Star

Bookmark and Share

(0) Comment

Join The Conversation Sign Up Login

Latest Local News

In Your Neighbourhood Today