Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: The Whiskey "Wars" of Hans Island

In the Nares Strait, between Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island and northwestern Greenland, lies a tiny island just over a square kilometre in size. Learn more about the history of the friendly rivalry of this disputed territory in this video, then raise a toast to Hans Island!

Video Transcript

Hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, between Nunavut and Greenland, there's a tiny island that's been fought over the years. Well, to say it's been fought over is a bit of an exaggeration—and at 1.2 square kilometres, Hans Island isn't even much of an island. Nevertheless, both Canada and Denmark have staked claims to it.

In the frigid waters of the Nares Strait, nearly 200 kilometres from the Canadian Military Base at Alert, Hans Island has little vegetation and no population. So why have two otherwise friendly countries been trying to claim it?

The contention starts in the late 1800s, when there was a bit of a rush to claim land in the High Arctic. The island was named by the explorer Elisha Kent Kane for Hans Hendrik, also known as Suersaq, a Greenland Inuit traveller and translator.

In 1880, the UK passed on its Arctic claims to Canada, hoping to head off an American land grab. No explicit mention was made of tiny Hans Island. Fast forward to the 1920s, when Danish explorers landed on Hans Island, mapped it, and measured it as if it was their own. After all, Denmark considered Greenland an overseas possession.

In 1933, the Permanent Court of International Justice decided Greenland belonged to Denmark. But the Second World War drew the attention of both countries, and when it was over, the court was dissolved along with the League of Nations in 1946.

Hans Island remained no man's land through the decades of the Cold War. In 1973, Canada and Denmark worked together to survey and agree to boundaries around the region of Hans Island, but Hans Island wasn't included in the new maps of either territory.

In the early '80s, rumours suggested a Canadian resource company was doing exploration and surveys that included Hans Island. Denmark responded. In 1984, the Danish Minister of Greenland Affairs left a note saying, "Welcome to the Danish island," along with a bottle of schnapps on Hans Island. Before long, Canada had replied with a bottle of rye whiskey, and a "Welcome to Canada" sign.

Since then, periodic visits from both countries include bottles of liquor and good natured claims to the island. As of 2005, each country has agreed to notify the other of any intended visits.

In 2015, a proposal was put forth that the two nations could share the island, under an arrangement known as a condominium. For now, the status of Hans Island is more Arctic trivia than international dispute, with an occasional toast between friendly neighbours.