Who really owns the Hans Island: Canada or Denmark?

Most nations in the world have territorial disputes with at least one other country. For example, the US has territorial disputes with Cuba, Mexico, and Canada (seven to be exact). Denmark is no exception. Hans Island is a small, uninhabited island located in the center of Nares Strait, which happens to separate Canada from Greenland; and both Denmark and Canada claim it.

For the past few decades, both countries have been embroiled in the fight for Hans Island. The dispute between the two northern countries heated up in a quid pro quo flag planting and snarky “gift”-leaving quarrel in recent years, according to NPR.

Although the Danes assert that Hans is theirs, the island is located on the Canadian side of the border that Canada and Denmark agreed to in 1973; though, the ownership of small islands were left unsettled.

Much of the tension started when, in 1984, the Danish Minister for Greenland, Tom Høyem, raised the Danish flag on Hans island after a Canadian company called Dome Petroleum did research on and around the island.

Back in July 2005, Canadian defense minister, Bill Graham, visited Hans Island with soldiers in tow, planted the Canadian flag, and built an inukshuk (an inuit statue made from stone). Following Canadian tradition, they also left a bottle of Canadian whiskey for their Danish rivals. The Danish government responded with a protest statement, but the act was seen as a bit of a farce by Canadians.

In the same year, Greenland paid for a Google advertisement that said: Hans Island is Greenland. Greenland natives have used the island for centuries,” which was linked to a Danish foreign affairs website. Canada responded by cruising their warships around the island and paying for their own advertisement, which claimed the island was Canadian. There is even a Free Hans Island movement that is protesting “Canadian occupation” of the island.

The island itself is only about the size of five football fields (half a square mile in area) and there are no valuable resources or fish around.


Nares Strait. Courtesy of Wikipedia

So why fight over an insignificant island with no inhabitants or resources? The answer is simple: sovereignty and control of navigation. Canada wants the world to know that its Arctic islands and surrounding waters belong to Canada.

There are very serious border disputes with the US in the western arctic region that involve large quantities of oil, gas, and other resources. Also, the Northwest Passage becomes a battleground for control if more Arctic ice melts and ships are allowed to pass. The question of who owns Hans island may just be a question of who owns the Arctic.

The US has insinuated that the waters in the Northwest Passage are international, not Canadian. According to Dan McTeague, Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, protecting Canadian borders is crucial. “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,” says McTeague.

To be fair, the Danes were the first non-natives to explore the island, and it is even named after Danish explorer, Hans Hendirk. Denmark seems more aligned with the native Inuit population than Canada and the border falls equally on Danish jurisdiction.

As to who rightfully owns Hans island, that question can only be answered by those who have the biggest guns. In the world of global realpolitik, might is right; and Canada clearly has an edge on Denmark in this respect. There’s no point in arguing about morality of the situation when Canada, Greenland, Australia, America, and many other nations were built upon land theft.

Whoever has the most money, weapons, and influence will win the island. Canada’s military, economy, global power, and population are far greater than Denmark’s and that in itself is why Hans Island is Canadian. There is no way Canada is giving up their control of the Arctic seaways just because a small Scandinavian country “discovered” it first. This viewpoint may seem jaded, pessimistic, and not entirely fair, but that is reality of things.

Who do you think Hans Island should belong to?




Zara Zhi
Zara Zhi
Zara is a freelance writer and filmmaker who has worked for numerous magazines and news sites. When not coming up with puns or writing screenplays, she enjoys having blind children read to her and donating plasma TVs. Follow her on Twitter: @zarazhi