Who Owns Hans Island?

For 20 years, Canada and Denmark have disagreed over who owns Hans Island. It's a small, uninhabited territory with no reliable natural resources. But when Canada's defense minister raised a Canadian flag there, Denmark sent a warship to the island.

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Canada and Denmark are squaring off over an isolated forbidding piece of rock in the Arctic. For 22 years, both nations have claimed Hans Island, which sits off Greenland's northwest coast. The dispute heated up this summer with tit-for-tat flag planting and gift leaving. Some say this is one of the world's friendliest border disputes. Richard Reynolds reports from Toronto.


Hans Island isn't much of an island. It's the size of four or five football fields and sits about 600 miles south of the North Pole. There are no fish and no valuable minerals to speak of and it is hundreds of miles north of where even the hardiest Inuit have ever lived. Hans Island is so small that at Toronto's main library, in the map department, librarian David Kotin couldn't really find it. So he pulled out the relevant maps.

Mr. DAVID KOTIN (Librarian): OK.

REYNOLDS: Still, he had to check a Gazetteer for the coordinates, then code and scan once again for this controversial bit of the Arctic.

Mr. KOTIN: And here is the Kennedy Channel and here's Hans Island. And lookit, there's a little indication that it's Canadian.

REYNOLDS: Of course, he did point out it was a Canadian map. The Danes insist that Hans is theirs. Even though it sits on the Canadian side of the border that Canada and Denmark agreed to in border negotiations in 1973, the ownership of Hans and other small islands was left unsettled. In July, Canada's defense minister, Bill Graham, visited Hans Island. Soldiers raised a flag and built an inukshuk, which is a traditional statue made from stone that the native Inuit once used to guide their way across the Arctic. If the soldiers follow tradition, they also left a bottle of Canadian whiskey for their Danish counterparts. The visit raised the hackles of the Danish government, who sent a diplomatic protest note, but the affair was treated as a bit of a joke by many Canadians, including writer Jennifer Amy(ph), who built a Web site, Hans Island Liberation Front, mocking the whole business.

Ms. JENNIFER AMY (Writer): There was a flag and then there was some rocks, and I heard that both sides had built inukshuks and that's when I thought this is ridiculous, like, this is just funny. It's just too comical to be true; a war fought by building inukshuks.

REYNOLDS: Letters in the Daily Globe and Mail newspaper, written with tongue firmly in cheek, suggested that Danes didn't have to fear persecution in Canada. Another suggested renaming the danish the Freedom Bun(ph). But there is a serious side to this. While the territory represented by Hans Island is not that important, the Canadian government wants to remind the world that its Arctic islands and surrounding water are Canadian. There are very real border disputes with the US in the western Arctic and those disagreements involve large amounts of oil and gas. Also as Arctic ice retreats, the Northwest Passage could become passable to ships. The US government has suggested in the past that the passage is an international strait, not Canadian waters. Canada's Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Dan McTeague says protecting Canada's borders is essential.

Secretary DAN McTEAGUE (Foreign Affairs, Canada): We will vigorously defend the integrity of Canada's territory as it goes from the North Pole in the high Arctic all the way down to Pelee Island.

REYNOLDS: A part of the Canadian strategy involves sending two small warships through the Arctic this summer. Sovereignty is usually based upon use, so Canada wants to show the flag. Last week, Copenhagen said that a warship was carrying officials to Hans Island to plant a Danish flag. The Danes, Canadians and officials from Greenland have agreed to meet in September to try to settle the dispute. By then, the Danish ship may have worked its way through the ice to Hans Island. In keeping with a long-standing tradition, the Danish sailors will likely leave a bottle of Aquafit there for their Canadian counterparts. For NPR News, I'm Richard Reynolds in Toronto.


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