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Divided Island: an Arctic dispute

Hans Island has been contested by Canada and Denmark for the best part of 50 years Hans Island has been contested by Canada and Denmark for the best part of 50 years Deadlyphoto.com/Alamy
27 Jul
2018
Steps are being taken to resolve the heated question of who owns a remote Arctic island claimed by both Canada and Denmark

Far up in the high Arctic, a thin channel – only 26km across at the narrowest point – divides Canada’s Ellesmere Island from the semi-autonomous island of Greenland. This is the Kennedy Channel, which serves as the border between Canada and Denmark.

In recent decades, it has also been the scene of a minor diplomatic spat over the sovereignty of Hans Island, a small rocky entity which both countries have tried to claim since official borders were first drawn up in the 1970s. Canada and Denmark have taken actions over the years to enforce their right to the island, including both countries’ military forces making symbolic stops on the island to raise their respective flags (and leave bottles of liquor for their rivals).

island2Historic illustration of the Kennedy Channel between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, 1860

The island in question – known by Greenlanders as ‘Tartupaluk’ – measures only 1.3 square km, and is completely uninhabited, as well as being devoid of any known resources. So why does either country care about ownership? ‘There are likely several aspects: maritime access rights, fisheries, and the continental shelf,’ explains Duncan Depledge, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. ‘These aren’t obvious today, but perhaps in the future they will be meaningful if sea ice continues to retreat for longer and longer periods. I think there is a symbolic value to consider as well. With the dispute running for as long as it has, I imagine neither side wants to be seen giving anything up in the region, especially at a time when all the Arctic states are looking to show their credentials.’

Recently, both counties – together with the Greenland government – decided to settle the issue once and for all, with the creation of a joint task force to finally establish sovereignty, as well as settling separate disputes relating to fishing and natural gas in the Labrador Sea to the south. ‘As an Arctic nation, Canada is committed to working collaboratively with its Arctic neighbours to address issues of mutual concern,’ said Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, while her opposite number for Denmark, Anders Samuelsen, called it ‘a breakthrough in our joint efforts to resolve the question of sovereignty of Hans Island and other issues.’ 

greenland map

While the task force will likely be led by legal experts, ‘it will also be necessary to draw on the scientific and technical expertise from a variety of other federal government departments, such as those dealing with indigenous affairs, fisheries and oceans and natural resources,’ according to Elizabeth Reid, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada. ‘Further, Government of Nunavut officials and northern indigenous representatives will also be engaged as discussions progress.’ No timetable has yet been agreed, but reports suggest that it could be a decade before a final decision is reached.

This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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