Canada and Denmark sign deal to divide uninhabited Arctic island

Canada and Denmark have reached an agreement to divide a tiny uninhabited island in the Arctic, ending a nearly 50-year-long international dispute between two friendly countries.

Experts call deal a symbolic move to show a united front against Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Hans Island is a 1.3 square kilometre rock in the middle of the Nares Straight separating Ellesmere Island from northern Greenland. The barren island has been at the centre of a nearly 50-year-long diplomatic dispute. (Submitted by Martin Breum )

Canada and Denmark have reached an agreement to divide a tiny uninhabited island in the Arctic, ending a nearly 50-year-long international dispute between two friendly countries.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly formally signed the deal Tuesday in Ottawa with Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod and Greenland's Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede. The Canadian government posted an order-in-council this week confirming the Hans Island deal. 

The settlement shows the two countries agreed to split the 1.3-square-kilometre rock almost down the middle. A border separating the countries will follow a rift in the island that stretches from north to south.

WATCH Canada and Denmark announce deal to divide Hans Island

Canada, Denmark end 'whisky war' over uninhabited Arctic island

1 year ago
Duration 1:59
Featured VideoCanada and Denmark have concluded a 50-year territorial dispute over an uninhabited Arctic island, signing a deal that will split Hans Island between the two countries.

Joly said the agreement shows how international disputes can be solved peacefully through diplomacy.

"We have new land and maritime border," she said. "We're ending the dispute that many called the 'Whiskey War' ... I think it was the friendliest of all wars.

"It's a win for Canada, it's a win for Denmark and Greenland and it's a win also for Indigenous people."

The move comes as NATO allies have joined together in a united front against the Russian invasion in Ukraine. 

Though she did not mention Russia by name, Joly appeared to contrast the peaceful settlement of the Hans Island dispute with Russian aggression.

"We know that authoritarian leaders believe that they can use force and they can draw boundaries by force," she said.

Joly thanked the negotiators and Global Affairs employees who worked on the file.

Copenhagen journalist and author Martin Breum visits Hans Island in 2018. (Submitted by Martin Breum)

Kofod echoed Joly's remarks, saying the deal can serve as an example to the world in difficult times.

"This sent a strong signal. Diplomacy and the rule-of-law actually work," he said. "May this agreement inspire other countries to follow the same path."

Egede welcomed the settlement. He said he hoped the deal would boost trade and investment between Canada and Greenland and encourage Greenlanders to visit friends and family in northern Nunavut.

"Today we have turned a chapter in history," he said.

'Beautiful ... worthless'

Martin Breum, a Copenhagen journalist and expert on the Arctic, said that while both governments will say it's a "fabulous deal," it's taken a "really long time to resolve a very, very small issue."

"This is an example of how even the smallest piece of territory can excite governments to a point where even allies disagree for decades," he said.

The dispute over Hans Island dates back to 1973, when Canada and Denmark tried to establish a border through the Nares Strait waterway.

Hans Island shoots up vertically 180 meters from the icy waters between Canada and Greenland. Both countries are exactly 18 kilometres away from the island, allowing them to claim the rock under international law. 

Breum visited the island by helicopter in 2018 and describes it as a "beautiful," desolate piece of history. He said the only artifacts there are the remnants of Canadian and Danish flags and placards staking their claims over the years.

"You actually feel history right there," said Breum. "You feel the closeness of both nations. And then knowing that you are on top of the 50-year-old conflict of international magnitude is really odd because there's nothing there.

"It's worthless. There's no minerals, there is no oil in the waters next to it."

Some international media outlets have nicknamed the dispute the "whisky war" or the most "polite" of all territorial conflicts.

The New York Times said that while other international disputes "can be ugly affairs, waged with all the nastiness of a divorce, backed with the forces of armies," the disagreement between Canada and Denmark would "better suit a dinner party than a battlefield: it comes down to B.Y.O.B."

Military ships visiting the island in the 1980s planted flags and bottles of Canadian whiskey or Danish schnapps to stake their claims. That suddenly stopped when both countries decided they needed to work out their differences as allies, said Breum.

At the signing ceremony, the parties exchanged alcoholic beverages as a reference to the tradition.

The crew of the Danish warship Vedderen perform a flag raising ceremony on uninhabitated Hans Island in August 2002. (Polfoto/The Associated Press)

There wasn't significant movement on the file until 2018, when a multinational task force took up the matter, said Breum.

Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, has been calling for a peaceful resolution to the dispute for decades. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine created the "right moment" for the countries to finally resolve the issue once and for all.

It's all about the symbolism

"There's no significance of the border, except the signal it sends to the world that we can resolve our disputes in a friendly way," said Byers.

Byers says the two countries decided to draw a line along a geological feature that can be seen on satellite images. He said border guards will not be present because it's the symbolism that matters to the two nations.

"It's a novelty," he said. "It's possible this will become a tourist destination."

Greenland's Inuit have long used Hans Island as a staging point when hunting in the area, according to media reports.

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) is the legal representative of the Inuit of Nunavut for the purposes of native treaty rights and treaty negotiation.

The organization's president, Aluki Kotierk, said "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," said Kotierk in a media statement. "Regardless, it is great to see Canada and Denmark taking measures to resolve this boundary dispute."

Russia has planted flags staking claims to the Arctic region. A mini submarine dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag onto the ocean floor beneath the North Pole in 2007 in an attempt to stake a claim to the region's oil and minerals.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct involving senior leaders in the Canadian military. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca