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Guest Column

Hands off Hans Island

By Alexander Rubin
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

To look at it right now, no sane person would think much of Hans Island, a glorified pile of rocks in the Canadian arctic. It’s a tiny, blasted and forsaken island a mere 1.3 km in area, desperately far from any civilization.

But, the important thing for Canadians to remember is that Hans Island is our tiny, blasted and forsaken island. And it must stay that way, if we expect any of our international claims of sovereignty over the, now only allegedly, Canadian north to be recognized.

Because, the truth is, Hans Island is far more than just a tiny, blasted and forsaken pile of rocks. It is a symbol of our fight to have our own territory internationally recognized; and, equally importantly, it will become the key to a future global shipping route.

The dispute over Hans Island has been ongoing since 1973, with both the Canadian and Danish governments claiming it. The island itself is located in an area, the Nares Strait, that is recognized as under Canadian sovereignty. However, and this is a big however, due to a mapping anomaly, the island falls in a gray zone; a literal no man’s land.

The treaty of 1973 listed 127 points between the Davis Strait and the end of Robeson Channel, and drawing geodesic lines between these points, used them to form the border. However, because no line was drawn from point 122 to point 123, a no man’s land with a distance of 875 meters was formed: Hans Island falls smack dab in the middle.

On an idealistic level, Hans Island represents Canada’s ability to successfully defend, both politically and militarily, its own claimed territory. Without this ability, its sovereign territory is not worthy of the name. The Danish had landed on the island time and time again; since 1988, they have planted and replaced the Danish flag four times on its rocky surface. Once, they cheekily left a bottle of brandy.

Sadly, because Canada does not possess (surprisingly enough) all weather, ice-strengthened warships, it has no means of easily getting to the island without relying on commercial vessels. This would seem to diminish Canada’s claim to the island; if it can’t reach it, how can it defend it, and if it can’t defend it, how can the island be part of Canadian soil?

Furthermore, Canada’s claim over the north is challenged by both the United States and Russia. While Russia claims sovereignty over parts of the Canadian continental arctic shelf, the United States maintains that the Northwest Passage, which cuts through the middle of Canada’s northern arctic territories, is international waters. In 1985, in fact, the U.S. deliberately sailed a ship through these waters without alerting Canada to emphasize its argument. The battle over Hans Island therefore becomes a tangible legal precedent as well as a symbolic battle for Canada’s claim to its northern lands. If Canada loses the battle over Hans Island, it may appear weak, and other nations may try to press their advantage and claim vulnerable Canadian territory.

Yet this is more than just an international phallic measuring contest. Though it has absolutely no resources, being a large, cold and infertile pile of rocks, Hans Island is a critically and tangibly important economic resource. Whoever controls Hans Island controls the strait. Since the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea came into activity in late 1994, there have been strict official rulings on control of sea zones.

From the shoreline, a stretch of twenty-two kilometers (twelve nautical miles) is territorial waters, which qualifies firmly as sovereign territory of the controlling state. Beyond that, another twenty-two kilometers (so forty four kilometers in total) where a country could enforce laws regarding activities that involves maritime transport, such as smuggling and illegal immigration. Finally, the treaty established a 370 kilometer exclusive economize zone, for the purposes of resource exploitation (most importantly, fish and oil).

Why is this important?

Because between the polar icecaps melting at a prodigious rate and the possibility of significant oil deposits in the seabed, at a time when oil deposits are running out, Hans Island becomes a critical tool for the economic exploitation of the arctic. With the polar icecaps melting, the North West Passage to Asia, through the Canadian Arctic, may be a financially viable transportation route at long last. If the Danish claim Hans Island, they would not only have the right to use the Canadian straits as they pleased, but also, it would encourage other nations to use the Northwest Passage, firmly in Canadian territory, as international waters. Also, if oil were found in the area, the Danish would have exclusive control over it.

On July 20, Defence Minister Bill Graham landed on the island, provoking squeals of outrage from the Danish over an illegal ‘occupation’: of Canada’s own territory. On July 25, they declared their intention to issue a strongly worded letter of protest. This matter is not a matter for negotiation, diplomacy or mediation. The land is Canada’s, without qualification. And it is high time that the Liberal Government actually stand up for the country, and firmly defend our national interests and our sovereignty and proud Canadians of all political stripes should applaud them for taking an unequivocal stand (unusual as it is for them) for the country they purport to govern and defend.

And should the Danish imperialism escalate, as withered as Canada’s once strong military arm may be, it is not so weak that it cannot turn back the Viking raiders from our shores. However barren and northerly they may be.


















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