THIS is How You Fight a War: The Conflict Over Hans Island

For almost four decades, two nations have been locked in one of the longest-running wars of modern times.

If you haven’t heard about it, if concerns a vicious struggle over a rock in an Arctic channel.

There’s not that much to say about Hans Island. It’s a half-square mile of bald stone sitting directly in the middle of the Nares Strait, a 22 mile wide waterway that separates the most northern land of Canada, Ellesmere Island, and Greenland, an autonomous Denmark territory.

In fact, its location is the only thing that makes it interesting. Sitting within the 12 mile territorial limit of both Canada and Greenland makes it close enough to both countries that either can claim it under international law.

The origins of the dispute can be traced to England. In 1880, Hans Island got lost in the shuffle when the British transferred remaining arctic territories to Canada. Due to the use of outdated, 16th century maps, the small island was not explicitly included in the transfer, and as such wasn’t even recognized until decades later.

In 1933, Greenland was declared the rightful owner of Hans Island, by the ironically named “Permanent Court” of International Justice. This organization was dissolved within a few years of this decision and effectively replaced with the United Nations

In 1984, Canada decided to pull one of the most Canadian moves ever. Canadian troops visited the island and left behind a few typically Canadian items: an erected Canadian flag, a sign that read “Welcome to Canada” and a bottle of Canadian Club whisky.

The Danes — descendants of the Vikings — couldn’t let that go!

The Danish Minister of Greenland Affairs came to the island himself the same year with the Danish flag, a bottle of schnapps, and a letter stating “Welcome to the Danish Island”.

Schnapps. The bastards!

Thus began a spirited war.

The next year, Canadian military forces landed on the island and left another (corrective) bottle of Canadian Club and another sign.

Since then, there have been annual trips by both sides to collect and replace each other’s offending whiskey.

(Who gets to keep the whiskey after it is confiscated has never been reported; presumably someone out there enjoyed it.)

Recognizing that there are easier ways to get alcohol, a plan is currently in the works that could turn Hans Island into a territory that would be jointly managed by the Canadian and Danish municipalities bordering it.

This is what can happen when a B.Y.O.B. war gets out of hand: shared ownership. It’s like, after a dozen shots of schnapps or CC, one of the folks at the table just said:

“F’ it, you have it.”

And the other guy said “No, you have it.”

And so it goes on.

I sure hope, when the dust (ice cubes?) finally settle, they toast to the new Peace Treaty.

Any bets on what they’d drink?




I am a Canadian born in Connecticut - two strikes against me! I love geography, history and science, and I am a top political and economic writer on MEDIUM.

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Barry Gander

Barry Gander

I am a Canadian born in Connecticut - two strikes against me! I love geography, history and science, and I am a top political and economic writer on MEDIUM.

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