Why Denmark and Canada are about to share a border

A half-century-long peaceful dispute over an uninhabited island has ended after an agreement was reached between Denmark, Greenland and Canada.

A 2019 aerial photo of Hans Island
A 2019 aerial photo of Hans Island. Photo: Canadian Hydrographic Service And Carleton University/Ritzau Scanpix

The 50-year spat over Hans Island has been resolved after the countries agreed to a partition of the island and the Labrador Sea, which separates Greenland and Canada.

The deal means that the Danish kingdom – of which Greenland is an autonomous territory – will be extended by an area the size of Jutland, Funen and Zealand combined.

Hans Island is a barren island around 1.3 square kilometres in size. Located between Greenland and Canada, it is symbolically significant for both countries.

Talks have been ongoing since a special focus group was appointed in 2018 in an effort to find a solution to the longstanding territorial dispute.

The agreement means a border will run from the north to the south of the island along a ridge, with one half being part of the Danish kingdom and the other Canadian territory.

Should Greenland ever become fully independent from Denmark, the Hans Island area would become part of Greenland, which is itself the world’s largest island.

In addition to partitioning Hans Island, the agreement also fixes a maritime border stretching a distance of 3,882 kilometres from the Lincoln Sea to the Labrador Sea. This border will be the world’s longest sea border and the most northerly part of the Schengen area.

One half of the area separated by the new sea border will also become part of Denmark’s territory.

The agreement was scheduled to be signed by the three countries at a ceremony on Tuesday. It must also be approved by the Danish parliament. This is expected to be a formality.

The dispute over the island has been ongoing since the 1970s but has always been peaceful.

In the 2000s, Denmark asserted its claims to the island on several occasions by raising the Danish flag and leaving a bottle of schnapps. Canada responded by leaving its own flag and a bottle of whisky.

The dispute has not affected the Inuit population of the area, who use the island for navigation purposes. It is known by the Thule people as Tartapaluk, meaning “kidney shaped”, while the name Hans comes from a Greenlandic hunter and expedition leader.

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Greenland’s hunters concerned about cruise ship impact as narwhal disappear

Indigenous hunters of the Scoresby Sound in eastern Greenland say the quiet of the hunt has been broken by new arrivals -- cruise passengers rushing to see Inuit culture before it is too late.

Greenland’s hunters concerned about cruise ship impact as narwhal disappear

This summer, around 60 vessels ranging from sailing boats to large cruise ships arrived at the village of Ittoqqortoormiit at the mouth of the fjord system — the largest in the world — in the month when it was free of ice.  

“A week ago there were hunters out there, trying to catch narwhals. But there were a couple of ships going into them,” hunter Peter Arqe-Hammeken, who said cruise ships were scaring off the wildlife, told AFP.

“When they come to the village, it’s okay. But when they come to the hunting ground, that’s not good,” he said.

The Inuit hunt the toothed whales with harpoons and rifles under strict quotas, with the once lucrative export of the tusks banned since 2004.

But climate change is squeezing the narwhal’s habitat and scientists warn that they will disappear totally from eastern Greenland if hunting is not banned.

To hunt the narwhal, whose long tusk was the unicorn horn of medieval myth, hunters need absolute silence — so much so that the Indigenous hunters of the Scoresby Sound in eastern Greenland forbid their children from throwing pebbles into the water lest they spook the spiral-tusked whales.

Taught to hunt by his grandfather, Arqe-Hammeken, 37, tracks narwhal during the brief Arctic summer.

But they are getting rarer and rarer.

In the swiftly warming Arctic, where temperatures are rising up to four times faster than the global average, the Inuit are threatened at every turn.

Vanishing hunting grounds

“Hunters live from hunting here. They have kids,” said Arqe-Hammeken, who was born and bred in Ittoqqortoormiit and fears for their traditional way of  life, of which narwhal meat is a key part.

“Narwhals are very important for the community” and for Greenland food culture, said teacher Jørgen Juulut Danielsen, a former mayor of the village, with “mattak” — raw narwhal skin and blubber — a traditional delicacy.

Numbers have fallen so much that hunters could not find enough to reach the quota in 2021. 

Photo by Olivier MORIN / AFP

Weaker ice because of warming is also making it difficult to stalk seals — another staple of the local diet — at their breathing holes in the ice.

“There’s no ice now when before there was ice the whole year,” said Arqe-Hammeken, looking out to sea from Ittoqqortoormiit.

His grandfather used to regale him with tales of catching seals just outside the village. Now hunters must journey deep into the fjord to find them.

“Thirty years ago there were a lot of hunters. Today there are only 10 or  12,” said Arqe-Hammeken.

Pollution from afar

Nothing grows on the barren tundra, and with cargo ships only making it through the icy fjord once a year “it’s important we get (our nutrients) from the animals we hunt here locally,” said Mette Pike Barselajsen, who runs the local travel agency Nanu Travel.

“What we hunt is very important for our culture,” she added, with traditional clothes like polar bear trousers and sealskin kamik boots still used for hunting and for religious ceremonies.

But in July, a study in the Lancet Planetary Health found that the villagers had some of the world’s highest concentrations of cancer-causing PFAS in their blood from eating seal, narwhal and polar bear, even though they live far from the sources of the pollution.

The “forever chemicals” from trainers, waterproof clothing, carpets, fire foam and pesticides are carried north on ocean currents before mounting the food chain to the Inuit.

With so much against them, some hunters are shifting to fishing halibut to supplement their income, said Danielsen. Others are turning to tourism.

Last-chance tourism

Ittoqqortoormiit and its colourful houses could hardly be more scenic, perched on a rocky peninsula overlooking the mouth of Scoresby Sound surrounded by glaciers.

Its once quiet paths are now filled with groups of cruise tourists snapping pictures of polar bear hides hanging from the houses.

“One wonders how people live here,” said Christiane Fricke, a tourist from Germany drawn like many to experience the traditional culture before it disappears.

Many hunters are already guiding tourists or taking them dog sledding.

“It’s a huge help for the hunters to have income from tourism as well,” said Barselajsen.

But others are afraid that the cruise ships are making hunting unfeasible.

Danielsen, the former mayor, admitted there is conflict between those eager to embrace tourism and those who fear it could erode indigenous culture, especially hunting narwhals.

“Tourism definitely poses a threat to the traditional way of hunting and fishing in Ittoqqortoormiit,” said geographer Marianna Leoni of Finland’s University of Oulu, who knows the village well.

But the authorities are “desperately looking for any sort of opportunity to keep the village alive,” she told AFP.

Tourists pay up to 20,000 euros for the cruises, with almost all of the money going to foreign companies. So the Greenland government is introducing a cruise passenger tax so locals get a share of the windfall.

But with the charge less than seven euros a tourist, the Inuit are not getting “much in return”, said Leoni.