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Hans Island dispute heats up

Defence Minister Bill Graham's recent visit to an Arctic island off the northwest coast of Greenland has turned up the heat in a diplomatic row with Denmark.

Defence Minister Bill Graham's recent visit to an Arctic island off the northwest coast of Greenland has turned up the heat in a diplomatic row with Denmark.

Last week, Graham went for a walk on 1.3-square-kilometre Hans Island, which claimed by both both countries. 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 (and) go there," Graham said. "The Danes go there as well and we are making sure that the Danes know that this (is) part of the Canadian territory."

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

On a map, a distinct line divides the Robson Strait between Greenland and northern Ellesmere Island. But the line also crosses over tiny Hans Island.

The week before Graham's stroll, Canadian forces built an Inukshuk and placed a Canadian flag and plaque on the island. That set off a reaction from Denmark which called in the Canadian ambassador and sent a letter to express their displeasure with the move.

But Danish officials say the situation is more like a game of checkers, with each country going in and placing a flag from time-to-time.

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

"Basically we have reacted because we want to keep the status quo as is. If we didn't react to a situation we would (be at) risk to have a worse negotiation position."

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.

Back 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 he says it's not a top priority.

He says there are more important issues to settle between the two countries. That includes clarifying part of the boundary in the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland, which could have an impact on fishing rights.

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