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Canada and Denmark End Arctic ‘Whiskey War’ With New Land Border

·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- A 49-year spat between Canada and Denmark over ownership of a barren Arctic island formally ended on Tuesday, with high-ranking officials from both nations celebrating the decision to divide up the tiny scrap of land.

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After decades of sometimes vigorous disagreement, sovereign claims to Hans Island were resolved with the decision to bisect the island, creating a one-kilometer-long border (0.6 miles) between Canada and Greenland, an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark.

The creation of a land link between North America and Europe -- albeit a short, cold one -- was hailed at a ceremony held about 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the southwest.

“Twenty-six foreign ministers have worked on this file. Yes, you can laugh,” Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly remarked during a news conference in Ottawa.

The event, which culminated with the signing of a treaty agreement, marked the denouement of a quarrel over an island of just 1.3 square kilometers which sits on a maritime boundary, established in 1973, that runs through the Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

For decades, officials from both sides adopted a form of passive engagement, removing each other’s flags whenever they were passing by and hoisting their own. In 2005, Bill Graham, Canada’s defense minister at the time, visited the island after Canadian forces raised the maple leaf, leading Danish officials to accuse Canada of staging an “occupation.” Denmark lodged a formal protest in response.

But the groundwork for peaceful resolution was laid with the semi-regular exchange of alcohol. On decamping, the Canadian military would leave behind a bottle of whiskey and the Danes would reciprocate with schnapps.

While the usefulness of island -- which is uninhabited and has no mineral reserves -- has yet to be determined, deciding its fate has real significance, said John English, founding director of the Bill Graham Center for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.

“It is a negotiated agreement on boundaries in the Arctic and that’s important for a lot of reasons,” he said. “The Arctic is clearly becoming more contested and more, unfortunately, a source of military presence than it was.”

Maritime Disputes

Global warming is increasing marine traffic through the Arctic and territorial tensions have become heightened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Arctic nations, including Russia, Canada and Denmark, all have claims that will need to be sorted out under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

For Canada, resolving the maritime boundary with the US in the Beaufort Sea, and reaching more sweeping agreements with Denmark on boundaries with Greenland, will be key, English said.

Joly, Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Jeppe Kofod and Greenland Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede all made reference to heightened geopolitical tensions at Tuesday’s event.

“As we stand here today, we see gross violations of rules unfold in another part of the world. In contrast we have demonstrated how longstanding international disputes can be resolved peacefully, and playing by the rules,” Kofod said.

Still, he said he was looking forward to the final exchange of bottles to mark the end of the dispute. “As peaceful as this has been, even that kind of battle needs an end,” Kofod said.

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