Denmark and Canada set to share island

Politicians have made a proposal that will split Hans Island and end decades of controversy

Denmark is on the brink of getting a new neighbour: Canada. The proposed border on the tiny Hans Island will only be about one kilometre, but it would settle a sovereignty dispute that has been a thorn in the side of Danish-Canadian relations for almost 40 years.

The Hans Island debate has been particularly fierce since 2005, when Canada's then-minister of defence visited the island and planted a Canadian flag. The move provoked the Foreign Ministry to say that it considered the island Danish and did not appreciate the unscheduled Canadian visit.

The 40-year debate stems from a cartographic decision made when drawing up the maritime boundaries in 1973. The boundary stops at the southern tip of the island and continues again from the northern edge. The plan is to connect the two points and, in doing so, the island will be split in half.

The proposal has not yet been approved by the Danish or Canadian governments, but it sets a new tone that the two nations are determined to promote an amicable outcome through negotiations, despite earlier hard-line approaches.

“The political complexities of making an announcement are, in many ways, much more complicated than settling the actual territorial dispute,” Whitney Lackenbauer, an associate professor of history at St. Jerome’s University, told Canadian newspaper National Post. “Both governments publicly staked their sovereignty claims. The early messaging of ‘standing up for Canada’ puts our government in a difficult position.”

But it is clear that the two sides are now closing in on a solution that would satisfy both parties, according to spokesman for the Canadian foreign minister, Joseph Lavoie.

“Canada and Denmark are co-operating in the development of a mutually acceptable plan, clearing the path for a future agreement on Hans Island," Lavoie told the National Post.

Hans Island is a barren and unpopulated rock only about one square kilometre in size, but holds strategic values due to its position in the middle the Kennedy Channel in the Nares Strait, an increasingly busy shipping corridor between Canada and Greenland. Additionally, there could also be mineral deposits such as oil and natural gas.

Lawyers from the two foreign ministries have been working on the issue after an agreement to negotiate a settlement was signed by both countries in 2005.