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The Hans Island “Peace” Agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland

The following is a guest post by Michael Chalupovitsch, a foreign law specialist with the Law Library’s Global Legal Research Directorate covering Canada.

On June 14, 2022, peace was brokered between two longstanding NATO allies, Canada and Denmark. A ceremonial exchange of liquor bottles signaled the end of the long running “Whisky War” between the two nations. Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod, and Greenlandic Prime Minister Múte B. Egede exchanged bottles of Canadian maple whiskey Sortilège and Danish bitter Gammel Dansk to celebrate the agreement to divide Hans Island between the two countries, leading to the establishment of the first land border between Canada and Denmark, much to the delight of trivia enthusiasts everywhere.

Oh, Canada! [Canadian flag] by Flickr user Gavin St. Ours (Sept. 19, 2008) used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

[Greenlandic] Flag by Flickr user STML (Sept. 9, 2008). Used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Dannebrog [Danish flag] by Flickr user
Jacob Bøtter, used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

The dispute began nearly 50 years ago when Canada and Denmark signed a treaty to demarcate the maritime border between Ellesmere Island in what is now the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and the Danish semi-autonomous country of Greenland (Kalaalit Nunaat).

The 1973 treaty deliberately left the border undefined through tiny, uninhabited Hans Island (Tartupaluk), which lies midway between the two countries.

Both countries claimed Hans Island for themselves. Canada claimed that the island was part of the 1880 transfer of Hudson Bay Company lands to Canadian sovereignty. Denmark claimed that the island is an integral part of Greenland and was used by Greenlandic Inuit for hunting purposes. Danish sovereignty over northern Greenland was recognized when the United States abandoned all claims to the region as part of purchase of the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. Interestingly, the island lies along the route taken by Commander Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson on their 1902 expedition in the High Arctic.

North America Polar Regions, Baffin Bay to Lincoln Sea. United States Department of the Navy, Bureau of Equipment, 1903. Library of Congress, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.wdl/wdl.5668.

In testimony before the Canadian Senate, Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia noted that:

There’s only one dispute over land in the entire Arctic, and that is a small island between Canada and Greenland named Hans Island. It is 1.3 square kilometers. It is a dispute that only involves the island and not the water or the seabed around it because those issues were resolved in a boundary treaty between Canada and Denmark in 1973. So it is a small dispute with a very close military and trading partner. Therefore, in my view, it’s almost insignificant.

We have two maritime boundary disputes, one of them to the north of Hans Island in the Lincoln Sea, which is so small as to also be nearly irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the two countries routinely sparred over Hans Island. Both the Danish and Canadian militaries occasionally sent troops to the island, raised the Maple Leaf or the Dannebrog flag, and left a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey or aquavit. There is no known reason for leaving a bottle of alcohol alongside the flag. It appears it evolved into a tradition after Denmark’s minister for Greenland, Tom Høyem, first left a bottle of cognac in 1984, welcoming visitors to the Danish Island. After a 2004 visit by Danish troops, the then-Conservative opposition accused the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, of being so distracted by scandal that:

Denmark’s soldiers land on Canadian Arctic territory, hoist their flag, claim the island as their own, and Canada does nothing. As a matter of fact, yesterday it was the Danes who had to summon a Canadian official forward to creep forward and peep up on the Prime Minister’s position on this expropriation of our property. Incredibly, yesterday his response was simply this, and I quote, “it is not Canada’s intention to stir up a tempest…”. That summed up the Prime Minister’s shot across the bow of the Danish ship of state.

In 2005, Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham took a helicopter to the island and visited an inuksuk that the Canadian Armed Forces erected. This visit was part of a broader effort on the part of the Canadian government to assert its sovereignty in the sparsely populated but, increasingly strategically important Canadian Arctic. This led to official protests from the Government of Denmark who summoned the Canadian ambassador, and the eventual release of a joint statement on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly stating:

We acknowledge that we hold very different views on the question of the sovereignty of Hans Island. This is a territorial dispute which has persisted since the early 1970s, when agreement was reached on the maritime boundary between Canada and Greenland. We underscore that this issue relates only to the island as such, and has no impact on that agreement. Firmly committed as we are to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including territorial disputes, we consistently support this principle here at the United Nations, and around the world. To this end, we will continue our efforts to reach a long-term solution to the Hans Island dispute. Our officials will meet again in the near future to discuss ways to resolve the matter, and will report back to Ministers on their progress.

The 2011-2020 Danish Arctic Strategy noted that “the disagreement is handled professionally, as it should happen between two neighboring countries and close allies.” It should be noted that while Canada and Denmark sparred over Hans Island, they continued to be close allies and conducted joint missions and exercises elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine.

The dispute also led to some lighthearted jabs in the Canadian House of Commons in 2011, when the opposition to the then-Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested sending a cabinet minister to be the “ambassador” to Hans Island as a form of political exile, and the minister of foreign affairs gave a tongue-in-cheek response declaring:

I will not cede sovereignty over Hans Island. We will not send an ambassador to Hans Island because Hans Island is part of this great country. We will not allow the [New Democratic Party] to sellout our sovereignty and give away an island. Shame on this member.

In May 2018, the two countries agreed to establish a joint task force to resolve the issue. As part of the negotiation process, the Inuit of the Nunavut territory had a treaty right to be included in the negotiations in accordance with the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement which states:

The Government of Canada shall include Inuit representation in discussions leading to the formulation of government positions in relation to an international agreement relating to Inuit wildlife harvesting rights in the Nunavut Settlement Area, which discussions shall extend beyond those discussions generally available to non-governmental organizations.

The June 14, 2022 agreement ultimately resolved the dispute in a rather equitable manner. Per the agreement, Hans Island will be divided along a natural ridge with roughly 60% of the area being allocated to Denmark and the remainder to Canada. The agreement also led to a delimitation of the remaining maritime border in the Lincoln and Labrador seas, leading to the establishment of what Canada and Denmark call the world’s longest maritime border. The parties hailed the agreement as a victory for the rules-based international order.

Canada-Denmark boundary agreed to on June 14, 2022, Map from Global Affairs Canada, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2022/06/boundary-dispute.html. Used under Crown copyright rules, Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, as represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, 2022.

The rights of the Inuit of both Nunavut and Greenland to freedom of movement throughout the island for “hunting, fishing and other related cultural, traditional, historic and future activities, were maintained.” Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tungavik Incorporated, the representative organization of Nunavut Inuit, noted:

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. Regardless, it is great to see Canada and Denmark taking measures to resolve this boundary dispute.

The parties agreed to come to a “practical and workable border-implementation regime” to manage the flow of tourism and trade across Canada and Denmark’s newest land border. Perhaps a duty free liquor store will be established.

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