April 9, 2004

Hans Island rightfully belongs to Greenland, Denmark

"As part of the homeland of the Inughuit, it is a part of Greenland…"


Though it's only three square-kilometres in size, both Canada and Greenland lay claim to Hans Island, which lies between Greenland and the northern end of Ellesmere Island. (PHOTO BY CHRIS HARRISON, GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA)

In June of 1915, three men fought their way south by dogsled through the ice-choked waters of Kennedy Channel, which separates the farthest northern part of Canada from the isolated northwestern coast of Greenland.

Part of an American expedition to discover Robert Peary's chimerical Crocker Land, they were on their way to the expedition's base at Etah, Greenland. The three men, two Inuit and one American, had made good progress until just north of a tiny island in the middle of the channel.

Then, Elmer Ekblaw, the expedition's geologist, later wrote: "Just a mile or so north of that little island our progress was stopped by a pressure-ridge about forty feet high that seemed to extend quite across the channel… south of this ridge the ice was thrown up in great mountain-like ridges..."

Ittukusuk and Asiajuk, hunters from the Inuit tribe known to history as the Polar Eskimos, and, to themselves, as Inughuit, followed by Ekblaw, laboured to reach the island, and climbed to its top to survey the route ahead and reconnoiter the best route to Etah.

That island is Hans Island, and it has recently made headlines. Canada and Denmark are having a border dispute over this speck of land, about three square kilometers in size, which sits in Kennedy Channel at 80° 49' N and 66° 26' W. Kennedy Channel is only about 35 km wide at this point and Hans Island lies smack-dab in the middle of it.

The island has never been occupied in the sense of "lived on." Barren and steep-sided, the first question one is inclined to ask is not: Who owns it? but rather: Who would want it?

It seems that Canada wants it. In March, a series of articles about Denmark's claim of sovereignty over the island appeared in the National Post, and embarrassing questions were asked in Question Period in the House of Commons. Bill Graham, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the House, "…this government will not surrender any sovereignty of any of Canada's lands in the Arctic… We are telling Denmark, clearly, Hans Island is Canada's."

The dispute over the island, portrayed in the pages of the National Post, is, however, not new. Twenty years ago, I wrote an article about this tiny piece of land, which was published in the local newspaper, Hainang, in Qaanaaq in north-western Greenland, the nearest community, 350 kilometres to the south of Hans Island.

That article was picked up by a Danish newspaper in Copenhagen, and by CBC Radio in Canada, and Hans Island had its first fleeting publicity.

Hans Hendriksen, the Greenlandic guide for whom Hans Island is named. (ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF KENN HARPER)

My interest was sparked by a chance encounter. In the fall of 1983, I was in Resolute in the Canadian Arctic. There I happened to meet a man wearing a knitted Inuit-style hat of the type so popular in northern Canada. Embroidered in bold letters around the side of the hat was the name HANS ISLAND, N.W.T.

I was interested in this Canadian claim to an island that I regarded as part of Greenland and so I struck up a conversation with the man. He was surprised that I even knew where Hans Island was. I was just as surprised at what he had to tell, for his interest in Hans Island resulted from the fact that he was a scientist with Dome Petroleum and had just spent the summer on the island doing ice research for the oil company.

Dome Petroleum, as it turned out, had been doing scientific research on this tiny island for some years as part of its research on oil development in the Beaufort Sea, 1700 kilometres away. What was the connection? It was that oil companies build artificial islands in the sea on which to position their drilling rigs. These artificial islands must be strong enough to withstand the force of being hit by large floes of multi-year ice coming down from the Arctic Ocean. Hans Island provided a perfect location in which to experiment on such forces. With its steep sides, it is similar in shape to an artificial island and is in a location where it is exposed to tremendous pressures of moving ice in the summer.

Kennedy Channel is like a large funnel. Huge ice floes from the Arctic Ocean, some several kilometres in diameter and up to eight metres thick, are swept southward through this funnel each summer. In the middle of that funnel, Hans Island is the first obstacle that many of them meet. By studying the force with which they hit the island, Dome Petroleum hoped to determine how strongly it must construct its artificial islands for the Beaufort Sea.

But the Canadian oil company was occupying Hans Island in violation of an international agreement. Canada showed Hans Island as Canadian territory on a map for the first time only in 1967. In 1973, during negotiations on a Danish-Canadian agreement concerning the division of the continental shelf between Greenland and Canada, Canada laid claim to Hans Island and efforts to reach a solution regarding sovereignty over the island were unsuccessful.

The icebreaker Louis St. Laurent approaches Hans Island. (PHOTO BY CHRIS HARRISON, GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA)

Both parties agreed to stop the median line referred to in that agreement at the low-water mark on the southern coast of Hans Island and start it again at the low-water mark on the northern shore. The agreement noted that, because these lines reach the island, "hence the island has no territorial sea." The continental shelf boundary agreement was signed on December 17, 1973 and ratified March 13, 1974.

Each country's interest in Hans Island was reaffirmed in June of 1982, during bilateral Danish-Canadian negotiations on the marine environment. In August 1983, Canada and Denmark signed an agreement on co-operation in that field. One of the items discussed was the possibility of establishing a reciprocal arrangement for processing applications to conduct research on and around the island.

Although that agreement was not signed, Tom Høyem, Denmark's minister for Greenland, reaffirmed with John Munro, Canada's minister for Northern Affairs, the common interest in avoiding acts that might prejudice future negotiations.

Unknown to the politicians was that Canadians had already violated the spirit of the negotiations. Dome Petroleum had been on Hans Island intermittently before 1981 and returned in 1983 with 15 researchers and five support staff.

In Ottawa, a lack of liaison between departments meant that the Department of External Affairs may not even have known that Dome was on the island. In 1984, a senior official of Energy Mines and resources Canada wrote to me, saying: "To my knowledge the Department of Energy, Mines & Resources did not confer with the Department of External Affairs over the use of the island by Dome Petroleum."

After my 1984 article on Hans Island appeared in the Greenlandic and Danish press, Tom Høyem, Minister for Greenland, chartered a helicopter from Greenland to the island and raised a Danish flag, leaving a bottle of Denmark's finest schnapps at its base.

Neither Canada nor Greenland can claim Hans Island on the basis of historical occupation. The island was named during the American Polaris Expedition led by Charles Francis Hall, between 1871 and 1873. That expedition, an attempt to reach the North Pole, had its base on the Greenland coast at Thank God Harbor.

Hall or one of his colleagues named the island for Hans Hendrik, a Greenlandic Inuit member of the expedition, known to his countrymen by the Inuit name Suerssaq. He was from Fiskenaesset in southern Greenland, but had worked as a hunter and guide for a number of expeditions in remote north-western Greenland. In 1853, when he was only 19 years old, he was recruited by the American explorer, Elisha Kent Kane, to accompany him to the High Arctic.

The following year, he and William Morton traveled by sled in Kennedy Channel and saw Crozier and Franklin islands, but there is no record of them having seen Hans Island. In 1860, he returned to the Far North with the American, Isaac Israel Hayes, and traveled there during 1860 and 1861.

The first written reference to the island is in C. H. Davis's narrative of the Polaris expedition, in which the island appears suddenly on page 407; the Polaris had left its harbour, southbound, and on August 13, 1872, "about noon, she was quite near Hans Island and west of it." Similarly, the island's first appearance on a map is also in Davis's book. Hans Hendrik returned to northern Greenland one more time with the British expedition led by George Nares in 1875-76.

At the time of the naming of Hans Island, Danish sovereignty did not extend to the Thule District of northern Greenland, and its exploration, such as it was, had been carried out by Americans. Later, for almost two decades, from 1891 to 1909, the district became the domain of Robert Peary in his quest for the Pole. And, in 1913, the Americans returned for another four years with Donald MacMillan's Crocker Land Expedition.

In the meantime, the Greenlandic church had established a mission at North Star Bay in 1909, and the Danes, Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen, established a trading post there the following year. The United States gave up any claim it may have had to any territory in northern Greenland in 1916 at the same time that it paid Denmark $25 million for the Danish West Indies (the Virgin Islands) in the Caribbean.

With that, Denmark extended its sovereignty to all of Greenland. And it has always assumed that Hans Island was part of Greenland. The island, named Hans Ø, appears on page 251 of the reference book, "The Place Names of North Greenland."

One of the tests of a country's claim to territory is the use it makes of that territory. No Canadian Inuit have ever used the area in question. In fact, no Canadian Inuit lived permanently on adjacent Ellesmere Island in historic times until 1953, when the community of Grise Fiord was established. Clearly, Canada cannot claim the island on the basis of historic use by Canadian Inuit.

But what about Denmark? The general area in which the island is located is part of the historic hunting area of the Inughuit (Inuit) of the Thule District, and even today some occasionally travel that far north. Moreover, they have a name for this island; they call it Tartupaluk because of its kidney shape. Many of the hunters of the northern part of the district have seen this island and traveled in its vicinity.

When Ittukusuk and Asiajuk, Greenlanders, climbed to the top of Hans Island in June of 1915, they were using the island for what it historically had been to the Polar Inuit of the Thule District of Greenland - a landmark, a beacon, a hill to climb to survey ice conditions ahead. And this is what the Danish claim to Hans Island should start with - the use made of the island by the Inughuit, in whose traditional hunting area it lies.

The more recent Danish visits to the island serve to make Denmark's claim indisputable, especially in the absence of recent Canadian visits. Hans Ø, as it should now be called, has never been a part of Canada. As part of the homeland of the Inughuit, it is a part of Greenland and therefore a part of the Danish kingdom.

Iqaluit historian Kenn Harper is the author of Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

April 2, 2004

Yellowknife Inuit won't be ignored anymore

Land claim beneficiaries should gain access to benefits anywhere in Canada

Special to Nunatsiaq News

I tend to agree with the comments from Ben Kovic on CBC (last Thursday morning, March 18), regarding the timing of the NTI (Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.) elections this month.

For NTI to hold their elections directly after the Nunavut legislative assembly elections, it leaves the electorate filled with election fatigue. The timing was detrimental for the candidates during their time off from their workplaces, in that they had to wait for the territorial campaign to be completed.

This is costly to the candidates in terms of spending their leave time with no productive activity, and in terms of their income, unless they were fortunate enough to get extended leave with pay, a privilege that few can access given the high unemployment rate for Inuit in Nunavut.

This has also been costly in terms of communications, specifically for those of us at the bottom of the beneficiary scale, here in Yellowknife. No one came to Yellowknife to speak with us, and to talk with us about their platform.

As an interim representative of the Inuit in Yellowknife, I can say there are approximately 600 Inuit living in this city from the Inuvialuit, the Inuinait and the Inuit. Ours is a wide representation of Inuit from both territories and ours is the most neglected that I know of by our respective Inuit organizations.

Promises were made by the past president of NTI during her election campaign to place an Inuit liaison officer for Yellowknife. This promise was disregarded during the term of the past president.

We were hopeful that this time around, we would get more information and participation from the candidates, but the opposite occurred. No one, this time, actually came around to count us in as their potential voters.

As a voter, I didn't know more than half of the candidates, had never even heard their names before, much less know their stand on issues and their platforms.

Yellowknife Inuit have plans to hold general elections for president, vice-president and executive and board members in April. We are in the process of registering as a legal society with by-laws; NTI will not be able to ignore its own beneficiaries any longer.

Being a beneficiary must include having the freedom to live wherever one chooses, with non-interrupted access to benefits through the land claims agreement and to not be penalized for living outside of Nunavut. We can't afford to follow the oft-trodden pattern of our First Nations counterparts who have been ostracized for living off-reserve and having their Indian status displaced into non-existence.

When we look at the bigger picture, our people will spread out to find jobs elsewhere if their land has nothing to access. The hope is that it will not come to that as Nunavut is the most beautiful place in the world in which to live. However, in this day and age, economics dictate our daily lives and our ambitions, dreams and hopes for a better life.

Yellowknife Inuit have volunteered their own time and effort to put together an association that will democratically represent the people here. We are without a budget at this time, and I wonder if the concerned Inuit at NTI would give up their own time without pay to contribute to the betterment of their own people, given that their salaries range up to six-digit figures?

In the meantime, we'll keep on trudging along. NTI's recent acting president has indicated support for our group; we are hopeful those aren't empty promises.

Most of our Inuit here in Yellowknife are educated, aware of the political scenery, hold jobs and are tuned into current affairs and issues that affect them. Times have changed; we know much more about our rights and obligations and are not afraid to speak out.

While we respect the leaders of today, the days of Ilirasungniq (being intimidated) and keeping silent because of it is not much practiced nor applied. We are a younger, educated and worldly generation, aware of our political environment within the new world of instant communications.

We have applied for funding for a core budget and staff for an office. Nunasi Corporation has been supportive, and so has the Inuvialuit Development Corporation. Nunavut Tunngavik will have to play a huge role in our development as an Inuit organization.

With a fresh start now, we can begin working together and show the world what strength Inuit have had to have in order to survive and thrive as a very distinct and unique people in their own right.

We look forward to working with the NTI president and the board, doing what Inuit are known to do and do well throughout the world: cooperate, communicate, support and achieve results to help our own people. With these, we can go far, but we need you to work with us in order to get there.