Canada, Denmark should turn Hans Island into a condominium: academics

Arctic experts from Canada and Denmark are proposing a novel solution to who controls an ice-bound speck of an island midway between the two countries.

Countries could hand off day-to-day management to Inuit from Nunavut, Greenland

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

Arctic experts from Canada and Denmark are proposing a novel solution to who controls an ice-bound speck of an island midway between the two countries.

Turn Hans Island into a condominium.

"It would resolve a long-standing dispute that, although insignificant, has some small potential to cause friction in the
future," said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia international law professor. 

Today, Byers and a Danish colleague are to present a proposal suggesting that Canada and Denmark share sovereignty over the 1.2-square-kilometre pimple of rock that protrudes from the Kennedy Channel between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Like a residential building where control is shared among the people who live there, the two countries could decide to co-manage Hans Island.

They could hand off day-to-day management of the disputed land to Inuit from Nunavut and Greenland. Or they could declare the whole thing a park, based on the model of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park linking Alberta and Montana.

There are precedents.

France and Spain have shared control over an island in the middle of the Bidasoa River since 1659. Pheasant Island is managed by municipalities on both shores.

Control over Hans Island has no impact on rights to any resources, all of which are determined by other treaties, said
Byers. Going condo would simply remove Hans Island from a list of irritants, however minor, between Canada and its Arctic neighbours.

"There have been tensions in the Arctic in some issues," Byers said Wednesday from Denmark. "The new federal government might see this as a way to signal a change in approach."

Denmark's foreign minister has already seen the proposal, Byers said.

"I'm confident he's willing to explore the possibility."

Currently, Canada and Denmark agree to disagree on who owns Hans Island. There have been reports over the years about talks and willingness to move, but nothing has changed.

The militaries of both countries periodically visit to remove the other guy's flag and leave a bottle of Danish schnapps or Canadian whisky.

Under the terms of a 2005 agreement, both countries have agreed to inform the other before they visit.