Canada and Denmark Wage a Century Old Whisky War

Whisky has always brought people together. Sean Connery enjoys a neat whisky with M, teenagers dabble in cheap mixed whisky and Canada and Denmark partake in sharing a whisky on the rocks… literally.

Both States have engaged in a peaceful territorial dispute over the Hans Island, using only flags, bluster and a fair few bottles of alcohol. The Hans Island is uninhabited, has zero trees, virtually no soil and no known resources of oil and gas. Yet apparently, in 1984, Canadian troops made a spirited voyage to the Hans Island, leaving their national flag and a bottle of Canadian whisky. Only a week later, a Danish public official replaced Canada’s flag with the Danish flag, planting a bottle of schnapps and leaving a note welcoming visitors to Denmark.

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Despite incumbent pressure from their allies, neither Canada or Denmark are willing to look towards a more bellicose approach to the Hans Island

Despite some ambiguity surrounding sovereignty of the island, both States have conceded that their friendly relations are more important than a 320-acre rock, with an Arctic consultant noting that the matter is merely, “small and technical”. The ability for both States to value their peaceful coexistence above nationalist ‘land grabs’ demonstrates a shift towards a more liberal agenda and an emerging stigma associated with ‘balkanization’, ‘separatism’ and ‘nationalism’. When we place this in the same context as the malignant South China Sea Dispute, the ability for these Canada and Denmark to focus on their soft power prerogatives appears even more remarkable.

Both the United States of America and Sweden have made some fruitless attempts to turn the conflict into a proxy war with the US media publishing stories about Denmark “invading Canadian soil”, with Sweden retaliating in a similar way. Yet, neither governments of Canada or Denmark have cracked under increasing pressure from their allies to look towards a more aggressive, neo-colonialist standpoint.

There is however, an emerging paradigm, which has allowed public opinion to trump government policy. The existence of new media technologies has provided a platform for public sentiment, crowing the people as a legitimate game-changer. Public diplomacy has allowed for citizens of Canada and Denmark to become vocal in the territorial dispute, demanding that the measly, little island be taken more seriously.

Despite the relatively benign response from both Canada and Denmark’s leaders, a more aggressive dispute has arisen over the islands through Google. A number of advertisements on the search engine have either supported Danish or Canadian sovereignty over the Hans Island. According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, a Canadian resident saw an advertisement on Google stating “Hans Island is Greenland. Greenland natives have used the island for centuries.” Apparently, there is also one other measure for determining who should have a stake in the ownership:

Does Hans sounds Canadian? Danish name, Danish island.”

The advertisement then linked to a Danish foreign affairs website which stated that the Danish Ministry of Foreign affairs had sent a note to Canada’s ambassador expressing Denmark’s regret that “…the Canadian minister of National defence had paid a visit to Hans Island without prior notification to the Danish Government.” This prompted other individuals to list their own Google advertisements, claiming Canadian sovereignty over the island.

Following the spat, a spokesperson for the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry told Reuters that its cafeteria would continue to sell Danish pastries as a “goodwill gesture.”

A website which has been sponsored by a rather proud Danish national, called ‘Free Hans Island from the Canadian Oppression’ claims that there are parallels between the German invasion of Denmark in 1940 and the ‘invasion’ of ‘imperialist’ Canada in 2005. This leaves the impression that there is a disjuncture between the public policy of Denmark and Canada to maintain a peaceful relationship and the desire for a more realist approach towards the Hans Island.

The long-running conflict was recently thrown back into the spotlight after Arctic experts from Canada and Denmark both formulated a proposal that the Hans Island should be turned into a condominium. By condo, they do not mean an apartment on the beach with a snazzy looking Porsche parked out the front but rather, a shared sovereignty over the 1.2 square kilometre speck of a rock.

Similar to a building over which control is shared, the Hans Island could be jointly managed by both countries. An alternative suggestion is to declare the entire island a park, based on the model of the Waterton-Glacer International Peace Park. Either solution would effectively remove Hans Island as a cause of friction between the two States, signalling a turning point in the way countries handle territorial dispute.

There is some contention as to whether relations will remain friendly in the face of a broader transformation of the region. The Arctic is heating up twice as quickly as the rest of the world, opening up valuable trade routes and resources, which were long blockaded by sea ice. This has not helped to slow down the publicly held opinion that either country should keep their “Hans” off, with the people of neither country wanting to cede territory which they perceive as being rightly theirs. Yet, this has not swayed the voice of the Danish and Canadian governments, who continue to wave their flags, drink their whisky and keep things as light-hearted as possible. But one issue remains unresolved; do these governments owe a responsibility to the people of Denmark and Canada to cast a cursory glance towards the public sentiment? Or does the pursuit of fairness, peace and equilibrium weigh too heavily on the pointier end of Denmark’s Kringle?


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There is some speculation about the potential future value of the Hans Island, in the wake of rapidly melting Arctic Ice Caps

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