Truce? Canada, Greenland, Denmark inch closer to settling decades-old spat over Hans Island

There’s a 1.2-square-kilometre rock near the tip of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, called Hans Island. Denmark says it’s theirs, while Canada is pretty convinced it belongs to them.

Countries convene task force to hammer out more official agreement than staking island with whiskey bottles

The crew of the Danish warship Vedderen perform a flag raising ceremony on uninhabitated Hans Island in August 2002. Canadian Forces performed a similar ceremony in 2005. The island is midway between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, and both Canada and Denmark claim sovereignty over it. (Polfoto/The Associated Press)

Canada, Greenland and Denmark are inching toward settling the remaining grey areas along their Arctic boundaries.

There's a 1.2-square-kilometre rock near the tip of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, called Hans Island. Denmark says it's theirs, while Canada is pretty convinced it belongs to them.

Alan Kessel (Submitted by Global Affairs )

In the 1970s, the countries agreed to disagree — stopping the maritime boundary at the water line on the south shore, hopping the island and starting the line again on the north side.

Since then, visiting military ships have battled it out, placing their flag and a bottle of rye whiskey or Danish schnapps to stake their claim.

"Whenever you get people together, especially people who are friends and neighbours and like a drink or two, they come up with ingenious ways of indicating what's theirs or not," said Alan Kessel, a legal expert with Global Affairs Canada.

Swapping bottles for formal agreement

The countries recently convened a joint task force to hammer out a more official agreement than swapping bottles.

It will be made up of lawyers and experts from a range of federal departments including Global Affairs, Fisheries and Oceans and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

Kessel will head up the Canadian delegation, which will meet with its counterparts from both Denmark and Greenland, virtually and during set meeting times.

The task force was announced during the 10th anniversary meetings of the Ilulissat Declaration.

In 2008, the declaration by the five states that border the Arctic Ocean (Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Russia) was made in response to concerns that sovereignty issues might raise the conflict level in the Arctic.

It said the signing states would resolve the boundary issues peacefully. This is the follow-through on that declaration, Kessel said.

'We do things using the rule of law'

"This is about getting the line right," said Kessel. "This part of the world called Canada ... working with Denmark, we do things using the rule of law and we will abide by our agreements."

The task force will consider all options for Hans Island, including a proposal made by academics in the mid-2000s suggesting that Denmark and Canada share ownership.

It will also finalize an agreement announced in 2012 by the countries' foreign ministers, in the form of an international treaty.

The agreement divided the Lincoln Sea — north of Ellesmere Island — along a continuation of the initial line drawn in the 1970s. That line stopped at the end of the Nares Strait, which runs between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

The task force will also look at an area of seabed in the Labrador Sea that both Denmark and Canada are interested in. The area is interesting, according to Kessel, because of fishing and the potential to develop hydrocarbon resources there.

Kessel said the countries might come to a provisional agreement in the area well before anything is finalized, as he suspects it might take up to 10 years to sort out all the details of the boundary.