Defence Minister Bill Graham's recent visit to an Arctic island off the northwest coast of Greenland has set off a diplomatic row.

Last week, Graham walked about on 1.3-square-kilometre Hans Island, claimed by both Canada and Denmark. Graham said Canada has always considered Hans Island its territory.

"Our view is that it's part of Canada and we continue to be there, to go there, the Danes go there as well and we are making sure that the Danes know that this part of the Canadian territory," he said.

Denmark called in the Canadian ambassador to express its displeasure.

Peter Taksoe-Jensen, spokesman for Denmark's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen, says for years Canada and Denmark have agreed to disagree over the island and he sees it as a friendly dispute.

"Basically we have reacted because we want to keep the status quo ... if we didn't react to a situation we would risk to have a worse negotiating position."

There is some question about who has sovereignty over the island, about 1,100 kilometres south of the North Pole.

Canada and Denmark agreed in 1973 to create a border through Nares Strait, halfway between Greenland, a semi-autonomous Danish territory, and Canada's Ellesmere Island.

But they were unable to agree which country would have sovereignty over Hans Island and various other Arctic islands in the area. In the end, they decided to work out the question of ownership later.

It's not the first time that Hans Island has been a source of argument between the two countries.

In 1984, Denmark's minister of Greenland affairs raised a Danish flag on the island. He then buried a bottle of brandy at the base of the flagpole and left a note saying "Welcome to the Danish island."

Taksoe-Jensen says Denmark is ready to start negotiations over Hans Island but it's not a top priority. He says there are more important issues to settle between the two countries, including a three-kilometre long boundary line that hasn't been clearly divided in the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland which could have an impact on fishing rights.