In the Nares Strait north of Baffin Bay there sits a barren, uninhabited island that has been the center of a land dispute between Canada and Denmark since the 1970s. The two countries have gone back and forth, warring over ownership for the past 30 years, but their means of stealing the land from one another is what makes this island so curious.
Stuck in the middle
Hans Island is located off the western coast of Greenland, right along the border of Canadian and Danish territory. The island is a mere half-mile squared, but its location directly on the international boundary has made determining land rights somewhat tricky. When the maritime border treaty was drawn up between the two countries in the early 70s, neither Canada nor Denmark was sure how they wanted to divide up the part of the channel containing the island, which sat along the part of the continental shelf they were using to draw the border.
Instead of drawing the line on one side of the island or the other, the countries decided not to draw a line there at all and instead resume the border on the other side of the island, leaving the mass of rock unclaimed. This gap in the border left a loose end that would eventually spark one of the funniest international debates in history.
This land is our land
About a decade after the border treaty, in the early 1980s, Dome Petroleum, a Canadian petroleum company began studies on the ice on Hans Island. At the same time, the Department of External Affairs from each country had started work on a treaty of joint ownership on the island and its surrounding environment. Both departments were unaware of Dome Petroleum’s work on the island.
The company’s use of the island set off a back and forth between the two countries that is still going on. Just as the Canadian company had made unofficial and unsanctioned claims on the land, Denmark responded in turn.
Message in a bottle
In 1984, the year after the treaty establishing joint ownership of the island was signed, the Danish Minister for Greenland planted a flag on the rock reading “Welcome to the Danish Island,” along with a bottle of schnapps. Not long after, Canada sent a representative to remove the Danish flag and replace it with the Canadian colors and a bottle of Canadian Club. Several further exchanges of flags and alcohol occurred over the next few years. No official records state what was done with said alcohol.
In 2005, Canada and Denmark spent much of the year exchanging letters, conferences, and of course, flags and booze, in an effort to settle the land claim dispute. In 2007, satellite imagery showed updated borders with the international boundary dividing the island in half, and in May of 2018, a joint task force was assigned to settle the dispute once and for all, splitting the island evenly between the two countries.