It’s a barren and inhospitable rock plopped in a frigid channel in the Arctic. One geologist who visited characterized it as “not a very exciting island.” A Canadian legal analyst once tried to point it out on a map in a presentation he had prepared for lawmakers but conceded that its size made it “very difficult to see.”
“We don’t have a big blowup picture to show you,” he said.
Nevertheless, for some five decades, Canada and Denmark have squabbled — mostly, but not always, politely — over the not-very-exciting Hans Island, a 0.5-square-mile mass in the Kennedy Channel of the Nares Strait that’s home to neither vegetation nor wildlife. The craggy outcropping — Tartupaluk in Inuit — lies between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark.
Now, at long last, there’s rapprochement in the dispute dubbed the “Flag war” or “Whisky war.”
Officials from both countries, as well as Greenland, signed an agreement on Tuesday to resolve the long-standing fracas — the last remaining disagreement over a land border in the Arctic — with the Solomonic solution of dividing the island in two. Denmark gets about 60 percent of the island; Canada gets the rest.
“I think it was the friendliest of all wars,” Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, told reporters in Ottawa. “I’m happy to see that we’re resolving it with friends, partners and allies. … It’s a win-win-win.”
Both Canada and Denmark cast the “historic” agreement as an example of how border disputes can be resolved peacefully, without warfare or bitter legal wrangling, at a time when the rules-based international order is under strain — a reference in part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“As we stand here today, we see gross violation of international rules unfold in another part of the world,” said Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s foreign minister. “In contrast, we have demonstrated how long-standing international disputes can be resolved peacefully and playing by the rules.”
The dispute dates back to 1973, when Canadian and Danish diplomats were drawing up a maritime boundary in the Arctic. The line cut straight through Hans Island. The diplomats left the question of what to do about it unresolved.
In the five decades that followed, Danish troops have visited the rocky mass several times, planting their flag and leaving a note and bottle of liquor to assert the country’s claim to the island. The Canadians also have made appearances, replacing the Danish liquorwith Canadian whisky, erecting an inukshuk —a stone marker — and hoisting the maple leaf.
On at least one occasion, the Canadians took down a Danish flag and mailed it back to Copenhagen.
(There has been nary a peep from officials in both countries about the fate of the various bottles of alcohol.)
In the early 2000s, the Danes twice dispatched frigates with soldiers to the island, in what Robert Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, called an example of gunboat diplomacy.
“In any other understanding, that has led to warfare,” he said.
Lawmakers in Canada have occasionally pointed to the dispute over Hans Island as an example of the government of the day doing little to defend its interests in the Arctic.
“Denmark’s soldiers land on Canadian Arctic territory, hoist their flag, claim the island as their own and Canada does nothing,” one Conservative lawmaker charged in 2004. “How much Canadian territory has to be claimed by a foreign power before [then-Prime Minister Paul Martin] will speak up and stand up for Canada?”
A further escalation came in 2005, when Bill Graham, thenCanada’s defense minister, choppered onto Hans Island to walk the frigid ground himself. That drew an official note of protest from Danish officials.
“We would like to maintain what was the modus vivendi,” Poul Erik Dam Kristensen, then the Danish ambassador to Canada, told the Globe and Mail “that if one of the parties visited the island, the party notifies the other party beforehand.”
The Canadians steadfastly maintained they needed to do no such thing — because it was their island.
In 2009, Danish Rear Adm. Nils Wang told a Canadian parliamentary defense committee that the last he had heard on the issue was that “we agree on disagreeing.”
“At least from the navy’s perspective in Denmark, we have been told by our foreign ministry not to go up there and put flags on the island anymore,” said Wang, who is now retired.
Alan Kessel, a legal adviser to Canada’s foreign ministry, assured another parliamentary committee in 2012 that the country was “not going to go to war with Denmark.”
“I can promise you that,” he said. “It’s being managed. It’s a rock, and we will deal with that.”
The Canadian government said that Inuit of Greenland and the Canadian territory of Nunavut were consulted during the negotiations of the agreement and that it will “ensure the continued access to and freedom of movement on the entirety of the island” for fishing and other cultural activities.
Huebert said there is a “pretty remote” possibility that there are natural resources such as oil and gas on the island, but noted there haven’t really been serious efforts to look. Canada, he added, has several other disputes in the Arctic that are unresolved, including with the United States over the Northwest Passage.
After signing the agreement to applause, Joly and Kofod exchanged alcohol and notes for the last time.
There would be no question about what the Canadians planned to do with their bottle.
It was going “straight” into the Canadian Museum of History, Joly said.