It has been described by some as a “pseudo-confrontation”, and by others as a diplomatic sideshow. Now, however, the so-called “whiskey war”, which was never quite a conflict, has finally been resolved with the formal division of a small, barren Arctic island between Canada and Denmark.
Located in the Kennedy Channel of the Strait of Nares between the northwest coast of the semi-autonomous Danish territory of Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, the half-mile square uninhabited Hans Island has no mineral resources or many other things of interest, unless you visit a sea bird.
Shaped like a muffin and surrounded by cliffs, it was a hunting ground for the Inuit for centuries. Crucially, however, it has been at the center of a long-running border dispute between Canada and Denmark – through the Greenland government – in which Copenhagen claimed geological evidence indicates that Hans Island is part of Greenland – a claim Ottawa rejected.
Canada and Denmark agreed in 1973 to create a border through the Strait of Nares, halfway between Greenland and Canada. But they couldn’t agree on which country would have sovereignty over Hans Island, which is about 680 miles (1,100 km) south of the North Pole. In the end, they decided to work out the ownership issue later.
That led to largely good-hearted advocacy between the two sides, including ads on Google promoting their claims, and flag-raising stunts.
The reference to “whiskey war” came about after the Danish Minister for Greenland Affairs raised a Danish flag on the island in 1984, buried a bottle of Danish schnapps at the base of the flagpole and left a note that read: “Welcome to the Danish island.”
Canadians then planted their own flag and left behind a bottle of Canadian brandy. Since then, the countries have taken turns raising their flags and leaving bottles of various spirits in tit-for-tat moves.
In 2002, Nana Flensburg was part of a Danish military crew that stood on the cliff to perform a flag ceremony. The newspaper Politiken quoted her in its diary as Tuesday that “among the stones in the cairns were many bottles, glasses, etc. containing documents giving information about previous visits to the island”.
At the height of the rivalry, both sides bought ads on Google to file their claim after Denmark said it would send a letter of protest over a 2005 visit by then-Canadian Defense Secretary Bill Graham.
Graham stated that Canada had always owned the island, prompting Denmark to respond, “Hans Island is our island.” Some Canadians, in turn, proposed a boycott of Danish pastries, echoing the way some Americans rejected “fries” when France refused to join coalition forces in Iraq.
Now friction is being ended with the two countries agreeing to divide the small island between themselves in an agreement to be signed later on Tuesday.
“It sends a clear signal that it is possible to resolve border disputes in a pragmatic and peaceful way, with all sides becoming winners,” said Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod. He said it was “an important signal now that there is a lot of war and unrest in the world”.
The agreement will enter into force after the internal procedures of both countries have been completed. In Denmark, the parliament has to agree to the agreement.