The History of Canada and Denmark’s Whisky War


| LAST UPDATE 06/15/2022

By Hayden Katz
hans island whisky war
AP via Shutterstock

Back in the 1970s, Canada and Denmark started fighting over a very small piece of land known as Hans Island. The area is located in the 22-mile-wide Nares Strait between the northernmost point of Canada and Greenland, part of Denmark's kingdom. But for many years, the two countries couldn't agree on who owned the island. Now, Denmark and Canada have revealed they will split the ownership. Here's a look back at what led to this decision...

For roughly 50 years, this "war" had been active, although it's probably one of the least violent ones ever to happen. Back in 1973, the two countries agreed to sign an official dividing line treaty, but still, they couldn't figure out a way to comprise Hans. That's when they chose to "stop the border at the low water mark on one side of the island and restart it again at the low water mark on the opposite side," as explained by attorney Christopher Stevenson in the Boston College International and Comparative Law Review. For a while after that, no conclusion was made regarding who the island belonged to.

hans island war history
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Tenison rose again in 1983 - a Greenlandic journalist went to the area to visit a Canadian oil company scientist who was investigating the island for a project on finding effective methods of Arctic drilling. Technically both parties were allowed to be there, but an article written about the meeting in the Greenlandic newspaper grabbed the attention of both Danish and Canadian authorities. This led Denmark's foreign minister to take action himself. He planted a Danish flag on the island, along with a bottle of Danish schnapps at its base. His action signified the start of the "Whiskey War." Authorities and civilians of both nations headed to the cold and rocky island to raise flags and bury (and dig up) Danish and Canadian liquor bottles, hence the name of the event. 

Although the fight was not violent and only left "a sea of slightly tattered flags and notices" according to BBC News' Matt Murphy, there were other consequences that resulted in the island not being taken care of. Hans is known as a barren area, filled with rocks that are desolated. And very often, the location is overflowed by ice and snow, meaning there aren't many usable mineral reserves. But it still has the potential to be a staging ground for drilling. And eventually, over time, Hans could obtain strategic importance in the next few years due to the Arctic ice melting. Thankfully Canada and Denmark have recently agreed to split the land in half, north-to-south, with Greenland receiving the slightly larger half. The peaceful agreement is a big step for countries around the world. "Diplomacy and the rule of law actually works," noted Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod. "May this agreement inspire others to follow the same path."

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