Trivia 075: A cold war

Hello everyone, I hope you’re staying warm right now. It’s been below freezing here for the past few days – hovering around the twenties. Still, that’s better than where I used to live which is below zero right now. That’s in Fahrenheit, of course. It’s the perfect time to stay home and drink some nice hot Dr. Pepper (see Trivia 050: Who needs eggnog?). Regardless of how cold it is here, I’m sure it’s far colder in Canada.

In the Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, way up in the Arctic, you will find Hans Island. This island sits just 680 miles south of the North Pole. This island has been at the center of a brutal war between Canada and Denmark which has been going on since 1973. Both countries lay claim to the island, and neither will back down. The losses on both sides have been truly devastating. Many fine bottles of liquor have been sent to the island, never to return. Such are the casualties of the Whisky War. Or, at least, that’s what the media calls it.

The dispute over the island stems from a treaty between Canada and Denmark made in 1973. In the treaty, the two countries agreed to draw the maritime border down the middle of the Nares Strait. However, Hans Island just so happens to sit almost exactly in the middle of this strait. They could not agree on who should retain possession of the island. Canada asserted that the island was theirs, thanks to an 1880 purchase of land. Meanwhile, Denmark asserted that the island was an important fishing area for Greenland’s indigenous population. However, despite their disagreement, both countries agreed that the resolution was low priority and decided to settle it later. The island is only half a square mile, and has no permanent structures or inhabitants.

This dispute simmered beneath the surface until 1981, when people started to remember its existence. An article about the island was run in a small Canadian newspaper, which was then translated into Danish. This started to catch people’s eyes, as Canada and Denmark were in the middle of negotiating treaties regarding marine environmental protections, and it turned out that a Canadian oil company was scoping out the area. Denmark acted swiftly, with the Danish Minister of Greenland Affairs himself traveling there to leave the Danish flag and a bottle of Schnapps. Canada returned fire by bringing a Canadian flag and a bottle of club whisky. (There seems to be some dispute over whose flag was left first, though). Since then, there have been many trips to the island, with bottles and flags being left for the other country to find. They even took out Google advertisements to assert their claims. The Wikipedia article on the topic has a very amusing timeline of the whole affair.

But in June of 2022, Canada and Denmark finally came to an agreement on the disputed territory. Their solution? Split the island in half. Or, well, mostly in half. If you go to Google Maps today, you will see that Denmark (Greenland) gets about 60% to Canada’s 40%. This border follows a geologic rift that runs down the island. But as a result of this particular decision, this border becomes a rather interesting one. At 4,200 feet long, it is the third shortest land border in the world. It also makes Canada and Denmark direct land neighbors. Both countries previously only had one land neighbor (the United States for Canada, and Germany for Denmark). It is the northernmost international land border in the world, and the fourth land border between Europe and the Americas (you can thank colonial holdings for the other three). There also had to be special clauses written into the agreement to allow visitors to the island to cross between Canada and the European Union’s Schengen Zone, of which Denmark is a part. All this because there was a tiny island in the wrong (or right!) spot.

This resolution was meant to be an example to other countries, particularly to Russia, with their invasion of Ukraine. Canada and Denmark wanted to show that territorial disputes can be settled peacefully. The official treaty specifically states how the two countries “[wish] to further deepen and strengthen their good relations as neighbours and allies”, and mentions things like “mutual benefit”, “bilateral cooperation agreements”, “friendly and peaceful manner”. Hopefully these other countries get the hint.

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