It’s almost precisely in the middle of the strait, so the international waters rule of law – in which nations can claim territory in the water up to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from their shores—so that won’t help provide any clarity.
Both Canada and Denmark, which has Greenland as a territory, believe their government has a rightful claim to the island, which is really just a hunk of rock surrounded by ice not far from the North Pole.
Hans Island, named for Hans Hendrik, a Greenlandic explorer, was an Inuit hunting grounds but was largely ignored by the rest of the world. An island that small, why would anyone pay attention?
When Greenland became a Danish territory in 1815, and Canada took over some Arctic Islands in 1880, the island was barely a blip on the proverbial radar. But when Hans Island was mapped some 40 years later, a conflict started to shore up, resolved by the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) of the League of Nations in 1933.
But the permanent court didn’t outlive the dissolution of the League of Nations; when the United Nations took over after World War II, the PCIJ assertion was lost to the foamy, icy sea.
But no one paid much attention, again, until 1973, when Canada and Denmark remapped their territorial borders in and around the Nares Strait. No, wait, they forgot about it then as well. They skipped right over it the same way kids skip smooth rocks on the surface of a lake.
This hasn’t been fodder for a major international incident yet (we’ll get to that momentarily), but in the mid-1980s, a good-natured chilly war began between the two countries.
In 1984, Canadian troops stopped by the island. On a lark, they flew the Canadian flag, left a note welcoming any completely unexpected visitors to Canada, and dropped off a bottle of Canadian Club whisky.
A few years later, Danish troops returned the favour, welcoming passersby to Denmark and providing them a bottle of schnapps to whet their whistles during their layover. By the way, no one knows what happens to the bottles that are picked up by the other country from Hans Island.
There’s been one possible solution floated for a peaceful resolution to this standoff without any further alcohol abuse: the two nations could agree to establish a condominium on the island.
But in this case, it’s not as if they’d build a multi-unit housing development on a hunk of rock; instead, a ‘condominium,’ in this sense, means Canada and Denmark should share sovereignty. This offer was suggested in 2015 but no resolution has yet been announced.
The men who mixed up this potent solution? Michael Byers, an international law professor from the University of British Columbia, and Michael Boss, a professor from Aarhus University in Denmark. There’s no report the two men toasted their brilliant idea with a glass of champagne or other “adult” beverage, unfortunately.
There’s even a petition to “free” Hans Island from “the Canadian oppression.” Pretty sure it’s a joke. The petition notes that the island’s landscape “has been barren, to say the lease, since Canada first occupied it,” adding that “large quantities of dihydrogen monoxide has been observed on and around Hans Island” since the occupation began. A refresher for those who forgot their high school chemistry: Dihydrogen monoxide is another way of saying H20, better known as regular ol’ tap water.
There is a slightly serious side to this seemingly silly stare down, however. As Arctic Ice thaws and the waterways closer to the Arctic Circle become easier to pass, it may someday matter very much who owns the island and controls the water around it.
By the way? There’s another island over which Canada has a similar dispute, this time with the United States. Both countries have called dibs on North Rock but neither has done much of anything to get to the bottom of it. And trading Canadian Club for Jack Daniels might not be quite a fair trade.