Canada and Denmark will split an Arctic island | Polarjournal
The solution is set in stone (Photo: Danish foreign ministry)

For the past 50 years or so, Tartupaluk, a small island that is equidistant between Greenland and Nunavut, has been described as barren, unpopulated and disputed. As of today, only two of those adjectives apply. The governments in Ottawa and Copenhagen have agreed to split the island (also known as Hans Island) down the middle, ending what has been described as the only territorial dispute in the Arctic and, experts suggest, setting an example for how to approach looming negotiations over rights to the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean.

The agreement that is expected to be finalised in Ottawa today by the Canadian and Danish foreign ministers — with the participation of the Greenlandic premier, Múte B Egede — has as its focal point the 1.3 square km Tartupaluk that will see it divided along a rift that traverses the island (clearly visible in the aerial photograph above). The agreement will also establish a 3,882km maritime border between the Kingdom of Denmark and Canada that runs along almost the entirety of Greenland’s western coast, from the Lincoln Sea in the north to the Labrador Sea.

Although ownership of Tartupaluk has been undefined for more than a century, it was not until 1973 when Ottawa and Copenhagen began discussing their maritime border in the Nares Strait that it became a matter of intractable, if polite, dispute between the two countries (involving, according to legend, raising and lowering the flags each country’s navy raised on the island and the infamous “whiskey war”, named for the bottles of Canadian whiskey and Danish akvavit sailors left for each other. The 2003 raising of a Danish flag by the crew of the Triton, a Danish warship, is pictured below).  

These colours don’t run (but they do compromise) (Photo: Forsvaret)

The two countries finally put the dispute behind them during what the Danish foreign ministry describes as “marathon negotiations” in Reykjavík at the end of last November. It will become valid once the agreement as approved by each country. Denmark also reportedly worked with Greenland’s Self-Rule Authority in the run to up to the negotiations to consult with people living in the area near Qaanaaq who hunt and fish in the waters where the island is located, and whose livelihoods stood to be affected by the establishment of a border.

That work led to the agreement including wording that recognised the right of people who live in Greenland and Nunavut to travel, hunt and fish freely in the borderland, and leaving open the possibility that, eventually, they may be given limited dominion over the area. 

Neither Tartupaluk nor the bodies of water between Greenland and Nunavut have economic or strategic significance, but successfully divvying it up in a manner that is acceptable to everyone involved serves, say experts, as a way for Canada and Denmark to show that they can seek compromise on Arctic issues without appearing to have caved in. 

That will serve both well when it comes time for them to sit down with Russia to discuss their competing claims to the ocean floor in the Arctic Ocean; all three countries have agreed to take part in a UN process to clear up territorial disputes at sea, and, if, as is expected, the scientific basis for their claims are found to be valid, it will be up their negotiators to work out a deal. “This sends a clear signal that border disputes can be resolved based on international law and in a pragmatic and peaceful way, with all parties winning,” Jeppe Kofod, the Danish foreign minister, said. “And that is an important signal now that there is too much war and unrest in the world.”

Kevin McGwin, Polar Journal

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