Satellite imagery moves Hans Island boundary: report

Modern mapping technology has pinpointed a new wrinkle in Canada's dispute with Denmark over tiny Hans Island.

Modern mapping technology has pinpointed a new wrinkle in Canada's dispute with Denmark over tiny Hans Island.

After reviewing the latest satellite imagery, federal officials concede the international boundary line runs roughly through the middle of the island in Arctic waters,not east of the rocky outcrop as previously believed, memos obtained by the Canadian Press reveal.

It means the most up-to-date map endorsed by Ottawa no longer places Hans Island squarely in Canadian territory.

Uninhabited Hans Island, the size of several city blocks, sits in the Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Greenland, controlled by Denmark.

Each country claims the barren patch of rock as its own, leading to a much-publicized war of words.

Canada and Denmark called a truce in September 2005 and have met periodically to discuss the issue. The most recent round of negotiations took place in June in Ottawa.

A draft December 2006 memo prepared by Natural Resources Canada says due to the "sensitivity related to sovereignty" the department had been reviewing all requests for topographic information related to Hans Island.

As a result, it was discovered that topographic maps originally used in 1967 to determine the island's co-ordinates are not as accurate as maps more recently compiled with newer satellite imagery, says the memo, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

The boundaries of the continental shelf between Ellesmere Island and Greenland were agreed upon in 1973. Given that Hans Island was under dispute, the shelf line was drawn up to a point south of the island and continued from a point north of it.

On the 1967 map, Hans Island was set at co-ordinates "clearly positioning the entire island in Canadian territory," the draft memo says.

However, the latest imagery places the island somewhat to the east, "which then puts the international boundary approximately in the middle of the Island."

In late January, then-deputy minister of Foreign Affairs Peter Harder confirmed in a letter to Natural Resources that the foreign ministry's legal adviser had been using the new co-ordinates.

Strengthens Danish case

Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said Denmark will likely use the new information as ammunition in its sovereignty claim.

"It probably gives the Danes one more source of argument to be made, which means it becomes much more complicated for defending the Canadian position," Huebert said. "But it doesn't necessarily take away from the Canadian position."

Canada says its claim is based on its use of the island over the decades as well as other principles of international law.

Foreign Affairs had no immediate comment on the newly released documents.

Huebert said it's unclear how technological advances will affect the legalities around such boundary claims.

"I don't think there's good case law on that one way or the other," he said. "Let's face it, the satellite surveillance capability to give you the true image of what the boundary actually is on a curved surface, as opposed to a flat map, is something that's brand new."

The Danish Embassy in Ottawa had no comment Wednesday.

The draft memo, however, indicate the Danes are aware of the shift. "Recent negotiations with Denmark have taken into account this shared boundary on Hans Island."

Former defence minister Bill Graham rankled Danish officials by making an unannounced stop on Hans Island during a trip to the Arctic in July 2005. The visit touched off a diplomatic quarrel between the NATO allies.

The Danish government made it clear to Canada's ambassador in Copenhagen that it frowned upon Graham's move.

Canada had formally protested the planting of Danish flags on Hans Island in 1984, 1988 and 2004.

Canada insists the dispute is not about the surrounding waters, noting settlement of the continental shelf boundary more than 30 years ago.

Some believe there is much more at stake, namely claims over northern fishing grounds or future access to the Northwest Passage.