Hands Øff Hans Island!

Canada and Denmark are bickering over a desolate island in the Arctic. Both Denmark and Canada claim Hans Island as their own. Perhaps Canada could share the island and learn a thing or two about Denmark’s progressive social policies.

Nathaniel Christopher Toast [Peterborough, Ont.] Volume 2 Issue 3

A diplomatic spat over the fate of a tiny island in the high arctic has put a slight grimace on the friendly face of Canadian-Danish relations. The two northern nations are anxious to consolidate their sovereignty in the arctic and are at odds with each other as to who owns Hans Island. The disputed island is located in Kennedy Channel, approximately half way between Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost island and Greenland, a semi-autonomous dependency of Denmark. The disputed island, which is little more than a barren rock, is approximately 1.3 square kilometres in area.

The dispute, which has been ongoing for years, was reignited last month when Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham paid a one-hour visit to the island as part of a routine sovereignty exercise. The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a note of protest to the Canadian Ambassador, outlining their regret over the incident. This was followed by strong condemnation of the act from Greenland’s deputy premier, Josef Motzfeldt who slammed Graham’s visit as an “occupation”.

A map of the Kennedy Channel showing the location of Hans Island in relation to Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
Drawing: Nathaniel Christopher

In 1973 a border was drawn between Canada and Greenland. Canada and Denmark both agreed to the border, which extends from the Davis Strait in the South to the Robeson Channel in the north. The border as it is drawn should run midway through Hans Island, but alas, neither country could agree on this, therefore the 875-meter stretch between the shores of Hans Island is without a border. Canada and Denmark agreed to revisit the issue at an unspecified later date.

The island itself has little value as it lacks minerals and resources. However, its strategic position in the Kennedy Channel could determine who has control of the passage through Nares Strait. Global warming opens up the possibility that the passage might become a navigable trade route.

Europeans discovered Hans Island in 1853. It is likely that Inuits had crossed the region for centuries. The 1853 expedition, conducted in agreement with Danish authorities, included the Greenlandic translator and arctic traveller Hendrik of Fiskenæsset, the island’s namesake. The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserts this historical connection along with the island’s proximity to Greenland lends credence to their claim.

In a July 28 letter to the Ottawa Citizen, Danish ambassador Poul E. D. Kristensen outlined Denmark’s position on the island.

“Since [1853], it has been our view that the island, by virtue of its belonging to Greenland, is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Relevant evidence in connection with defining the area of Greenland, such as geological and geomorphological evidence, clearly supports this point of view.”

Canada, however, claims that the island was discovered by the British and is Canadian by merit of Canada’s status as a former British possession. “We’ll talk to the Danish people about their position,” said Graham. “But our position has always been clear: It’s Canada, and I went there just as I would have gone anywhere else in the Arctic.”

The issue won’t be resolved unless one or both parties take decisive action through diplomacy, litigation, or war.

Diplomacy does not appear to be working well thus far. Both Canada and Denmark are each convinced the island is their own. A polite letter from the Danish ambassador and a haughty rebuttal from Bill Graham seem to show how slow and ineffective diplomacy can be – it’s a game of patience. If we continue to negotiate at this pace we’ll never resolve the issue.

The second option, war, would be manna from heaven for the Conservatives. The prospect of bearing arms against such a socially progressive, permissive society would provide the right-wing nut jobs a perfect opportunity to unleash their pent up frustration over same-sex marriage and the NDP budget. Not only would it be a war against Denmark, it would also be a purge of those who advocate for Scandinavian-style social democracy within Canada.

The third option is litigation. Denmark or Canada could present their case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and let the courts decide. However, it would be very difficult for either party to make a successful case for ownership of the island as neither actually occupy or inhabit it.

The border as it is drawn meets up at opposite ends of Hans Island. If the border were drawn along a straight line between the disputed zone then it would run midway through the island. If such an agreement were reached between Canada and Denmark the island would belong not to one nation but both. An international boundary would divide the island and Canada would share a border with Danish territory. This move would strengthen Canada’s physical connection to Denmark and hopefully spark an interchange of culture, ideas, and dialogue.

Right now the United States is the only country that shares a border with Canada. Canada’s proximity to the United States is a key factor in the enormous amount of trade between the two countries. Everything within the United States, no matter how vile or trivial, seems to infiltrate Canadian borders with surprising efficiency and speed. Much of the food we eat is American, as are many of the clothes we wear, movies we watch and music we listen to. Of course, this is the case with many other regions of the world. However, unlike many other regions that are afforded some physical distance, Canada is located right next door to the United States and must be especially vigilant in the fight to resist American culture.

Immigration and multiculturalism have been an undeniable force in the formation of Canada. It is a multicultural nation with unbroken links to lands all over the globe. It’s a world nation with an ever-changing pool of ideas, attitudes and peoples.

With this in mind it is not unfeasible that Canada ought to look to Denmark as a possible role model.

If Canada were to share a border with Denmark, they would be its neighbour and possible role model.

People continually excuse the faults in any of our social programs with a disdainful comparison to the Americans. “Well, our [insert name of social program here] may not be perfect but at least it’s not as bad as what they have in the United States.” In the last Canadian federal election Peterborough Green Party candidate Brent Wood said that comparing Canada to the United States is like comparing yourself to the worst student in the class. “You’ve got to look at some other countries and see how far behind we really are because we’re so focused on the United States,” stated Wood. “Once you start to focus on Europe I think we’ll start seeing some change around here.”

A border at Hans Island would probably remained unstaffed and uninhabited; it would be as barren and desolate as it is now. The border would exist most potently in the collective Canadian imagination, which still clings to a romantic notion of the Arctic as a part of its identity. Although most Canadians live well below the tree line. It is in this same way that a border with Denmark would effect change. This frontier would bring Denmark closer to the centre of Canadian consciousness and over time Canadians would to look to Denmark as an example and gradually emulate it.

And why not emulate Denmark?

Denmark is internationally renowned for its sophisticated design and architecture, strong coffee, cheese, and of course Lego. More importantly however, is the more or less intangible import of social democracy, which exists in Canada, but on a much more subdued level.

Denmark is an example of a welfare state, whereby the government assumes primary responsibility for the well being of its people in areas of health care, education, employment, and social security. Denmark’s public expenditure accounts for 26% of its GDP. As a result, it has one of the highest tax rates in the world. This taxation system, unlike ours ensures a more equitable redistribution of wealth.

Denmark uses what is known as the Scandinavian Welfare Model. Within this societal structure social benefits are the same for everyone – irrespective of economic or social background. This system differs significantly from other European and North American models in which the state offers services to those in the greatest need or leaves social welfare to the private sector, church or family.

In Denmark welfare benefits are available to a far greater extent than other European nations and as a result poverty levels are at a minimum. Poverty is so low, in fact that there is no Danish word for “food bank” in the same context as we know it.


Despite its social democratic overtones Denmark is not a hard-line socialist state. The welfare state exists within the confines of a controlled capitalist market economy. This political compromise prevents capitalist interference in social programs.

Although many Canadians would characterize the welfare state as social-democratic, socialist, or communist, all Scandinavian political parties support it. Large portions of Scandinavian governments were not socialist. The idea of a healthy welfare state is not viewed as political in Denmark, but an integral part of the society, that may, like any other component, require the odd check up and retooling. But the fundamental fabric that keeps it together will remain intact for a long time.

Many Canadians, however, disregard the idea of a Canadian Welfare state as some kind of fanciful dream. Social spending is viewed by some as a necessary pittance to alleviate the guilt of the upper middle classes; it’s an extension of charity as opposed to a right for all, which is probably why our system is so lacklustre.

The foundations of a Canadian welfare state were laid after the Second World War and have been rapidly deteriorating for the last thirty odd years. The most obvious pillar of the Canadian welfare state is our universal health care system.

This system was first developed and implemented in Canada by then Saskatchewan premier, Tommy Douglas. Despite fierce opposition from doctors and people with a neurotic fear of communism (Douglas’s administration was the first socialist government in North America), he realized his dream of university healthcare. By 1970 it had caught on everywhere else in Canada.

Far from being reviled and feared, universal health care is something that Canadians are most proud of. It is a binding thread that bridges the differences and disparities between the many Canadian regions and communities. It is something that defines Canada as a nation in every sense of the word. The man who brought this system to Canada was recently recognized by a CBC poll as the Greatest Canadian of all time. The widespread reverence and affection that Canadians hold for Tommy Douglas illustrates how close the idea of a Canadian welfare state is to our hearts. I don’t think we will ever see statues of Mike Harris or Gordon Campbell on our stamps. In thirty years time we won’t be reciting the stories of Ernie Eves to children over CBC Radio 1. These leaders, among many others, embody the selfish, mean-spirited individualism that plagues Canada. They are reminders of how low we can sink.

Canada has a long history of emulating other nations in terms of social policy, culture, and business. By virtue of colonial domination and physical connection, Canada has traditionally modelled itself after Britain or America. However, rapid communication has brought with it an increase in the interchange of ideas and people between nations. Canada has the ability to pick and choose which nation or society it can emulate. We no longer have to go American or British by default. Denmark, and its wonderful example of social progress presents itself as a laudable example for Canada where we will one day learn that “Danish” is more than a pastry.

I am a resident of Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada who has blogged here for 20 years. I like to share my thoughts and feelings on my own online space. From 1998 until 2017 I worked as a journalist and I hope to use this website as an archive for all of my stories.