The Whiskey War

Play episode
Hosted by

For 40 years, a war waged over a very small island, far to the north, beyond any permanently inhabited settlement.

If you stood in the middle of it, you could see Canada’s Ellesmere Island on one side, and Greenland on the other.

Every few years, Canada and Denmark claimed it for themselves by sometimes sending troops, and sometimes scientists.

And every so often even a politician

Back and forth the war raged, all for control of barely a dot on a map.

The rest of the world watched but how many died in this forty years war?

No one.

How many shots fired?


How much hooch devoured??

Quite a few as it turned out.

I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!


Before I begin today’s story… Let’s go to our map

Now… go ahead and Quickly find Hans Island.

I’ll wait.

Find it?

Chances are you didn’tHans Island is a speck… not even a dot of an island, located between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, with an area of only 1.3 kilometres square, about the size of a city block. with a maximum elevation of 168 metres.

Aside from that the island is rather unremarkable.

Made of about 640 feet of Silurian limestone, dating back about 440 million years.  On the surface it’s yellowish brown, with glacial sediment left over from the last ice age.

There are no trees, no grass, just a big rock sticking out of the Arctic Ocean.

The Inuit likely knew of the island for centuries, and it probably served as hunting grounds, but until the mid-part of the 19th century it was unknown to Europeans.

It may have been visited at some point by the Vikings during their voyages 1,000 years ago, but there is currently no evidence of that.

You may remember from my episode on the Franklin Expedition that  the Erebus and Terror went missing in the late-1840s, and Americans, British and Danish ships went looking for them.

They never found them but they did map huge areas of the Arctic, which is when Europeans first gazed upon Hans Island.

According to Denmark’s claim, they reached Hans Island in 1853 on an expedition that included Hans Hendrik.

He saved the lives of several men from his ship when they journeyed too far away on the ice.

Upon their return to dry land, Hans was given two barrels of flour and 52 pounds of salt pork as a reward, for saving the crew, as well as the name of a small rock in the Arctic, Hans Island.

He was the first Inuk to publish an account of Arctic travels because he went on many more expeditions, including British and American ones, for the next 25 years until his death in 1889 at the age of 57.

He would never know  that for the next 150 years , this tiny rock named after him would become one of the most famous islands in the world in a decades long border dispute

So how did it start? For that we turn to Greenland

(SFX bit map bit from earlier?)

I won’t go into Greenland’s long history or the Inuit who lived there for centuries.

But here’s what you need to know for the purposes of today’s story.

In 986 CE, Erik The Red led 14 boats to the west coast of Greenland and established three Viking settlements.

The Norse remained there until the early 15th century when the world fell into what is now called The Little Ice Age and temperatures plummeted.

Skip to  the 1600s, when the Kingdom of Denmark and Norway, the successors to theVikings of centuries past, sent out expeditions to find the lost Norse settlements on Greenland and to assert their sovereignty over it.

Remember that around the same time the Hudson’s Bay Company was formed and in 1670, had legal title over Hudson’s Bay BUT itt didn’t include the Arctic islands.

By 1721, the Danes sent settlers to live in Greenland, which prospered over the next century.

Then the Treaty of Kiel was signed on Jan. 14, 1814.

It effectively split Norway and Denmark into two separate nations, Norway contested that Greenland was under its dominion, while Denmark stated that it was theirs.

Of course, no one took into consideration the Inuit who had lived there before any Viking ever set foot on Greenland or asked them for their opinion on the matter

Meanwhile, seven years after that treaty, the rest of the Arctic, including the islands in the north but not including Greenland, were added to the Hudson’s Bay Company charter by the British Parliament.

Half a century later in 1880, Canada amassed more land when the Adjacent Territories Order was signed.

Bear in mind the Rupert’s Land which had been Hudson Bay Company territory  had already been transferred to Canada in 1870, so this order transferred the ownership of any remaining land in British North America, called the British Arctic Territories, to the Dominion of Canada.

This included, in the writing, all islands adjacent to any such territories, whether they were visited by Europeans or not.

Essentially, it transferred islands that were not even on European maps yet.

As you can imagine other countries with a claim in the north, such as Denmark, the United States and Russia considered this dubious at best.

But at the time, no one saw much potential in the Arctic, so the issue died away quite quickly.

That is… until the 1920s when Hans Island was once again reached by Europeans, this time a Danish expedition mapping the territorial waters of Greenland.

And yes… Norway and Denmark had been arguing over who had claim over Greenland this whole time.

In  1933 there was finally a resolution when Norway and Denmark took the matter to the Permanent Court of International Justice, which decided in Denmark’s favor and that  seemed to be the end of it because then Hitler invaded Poland a few years later kicking off The Second World War and there were more pressing matters than  who owned a small island in the Arctic

 Hans Island simply fell back into obscurity for the next four decades.

Occasionally, Canadians would venture to the island to set up a temporary scientific station, or do topographical surveys, but it attracted little notice from anyone else.

Then, in 1972, it was deemed important for Canada and Greenland to determine their borders and a group from the Canadian Hydrographic Service and Danish personnel went to Hans Island to determine geographic coordinates. As it turned out, the border between Greenland and Canada went straight through the middle of the island.

Now, keep in mind, this island doesn’t really have anything on it.

As I said it is wholly unremarkable but countries can be a lot like children. Even though no one cared about it  for decades, once each side  now wanted it.

Thus began the Whiskey War.

[SFX Glasses clinking and pouring? then tunes]

On Dec. 17, 1973, the first glass was poured when Denmark and Canada submitted their continental shelf treaty to the United Nations.

At the time of its submission, it was the first boundary developed by a computer, and the longest shelf boundary treaty ever negotiated.

The treaty listed 127 points extending over 2,100 kilometers.

From Robeson Channel, at the far northern tip of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, down to the Davis Straight, situated between Baffin Island and Greenland.

 but the boundary had  a small gap in it of 1.3 kilometres fromthe northern tip to the southern tip of Hans island.

Neither Canada nor Denmark could agree who owned it, so neither side officially had it in their territory.

This oddity was covered in. The Vancouver Sun when they wrote,

“The island, Hans Island, is of little value in itself. It is about a mile long, surrounded by ice most of the time and the area is so windy that nothing, not even snow or ice, remains on the rocky island for long.”

The article goes on to state that while few people have set foot on it, whoever controlled the island could potentially gain hundreds of square kilometres of ocean floor between Greenland and Ellesmere Island that would be worth billions if oil and gas were found.

Beginning in 1980, Dome Petroleum did research on Hans Island, and in the waters around it, to see if there were any oil and gas deposits. Each summer until 1983, the company went to the island.

At the same time, John Munro, the Canadian Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was working on an arrangement with Tom Hoyem, the Minister for Greenland, that would allow both countries to conduct research  around Hans Island.

The concern for both countries was that if either country had people on it long-term, it would qualify as an effective occupation and help uphold a claim of sovereignty on the island.

The two countries also signed an agreement to protect the marine life of the region, especially when it came to offshore hydrocarbon exploration.

Neither country knew that Dome Petroleum was on Hans Island, conducting its own research and an unnamed scientist spent a summer on the island in the early-1980s and made  a hat  that said Hans Island, NWT.

In 1984, Kenn Harper, a writer and historian saw that man, wearing that hat while in Resolute, an Inuit hamlet on Cornwallis Island in Nunavut, Canada.


Intrigued by it, Harper wrote a story about Hans Island which was printed for the Nunatsiaq News in the Northwest Territories and in a local newspaper in Greenland.

A Danish newspaper in Copenhagen then picked it up, as did CBC Radio.

News of Hans Island spread forcing both governments into action.A few months later, the Danish Minister for Greenland planted the a flag on Hans Island and left a note that read, Welcome to the Danish Island along with a bottle of Schnapps.

The Danish government stated that the visit to Hans Island was just part of a northern tour and the flag raising had no relevance to Denmark’s attitude towards who controlled the island.

In response, Canada went to the island soon after, put up the Canadian flag and left a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey.

In 1988, a Danish Arctic Ocean patrol ship arrived at the island, built a cairn and put up a flag pole with the Danish flag on it and left another bit of alcohol.

The country returned in 1995, putting up another flag and flagpole.

In the pre-Internet age, this barely caused a blip in the news cycle.

It would be another 20 years before the Whiskey War really became headline news.


On Aug. 13, 2002, a Danish inspection ship poured the second glass of this war when they arrived and put up a new flagpole and flag, finding the 1988 flag long gone and the 1995 flag tattered.

One year later, Denmark returned and replaced the flag once again.

By 2004, climate change was a major issue.

Once the Arctic melted, it would open northern shipping lanes and there was concern that if Canada did not assert its authority over the north, it would lose out when it came time to claim its  resources.

Russia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway regard the Arctic Seas as national waters within their borders giving them access to the shipping lanes and resources.

The United States and European Union regard the region as international waters without any restrictions from other countries.

On March 23, 2004, the Canadian federal budget was introduced by the Liberal government, which saw a small increase in national defence spending.

During the budget debate, Stockwell Day, then foreign affairs critic for the Canadian Alliance, raised the issue of Hans Island Parliamentas an example of the failure of the government to provide more funding to the Arctic region to assert Canada’s sovereignty

Soon after, Brian Herman, the only Canadian diplomat in Denmark, was summoned to speak with the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide information on Canada’s intentions regarding the Hans Island dispute.

On March 25, 2004, Adrian Humphreys of the National Post wrote an article about Hans Island, further raising its profile among the Canadian public.

Six days later, the Danish and Canadian governments denied that anyCanadian official was summoned to speak to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Denmark.

Six months later, the Canadian Forces conducted a military exercise 2,000 kilometres south of Hans Island.

Planning for the exercise started in September 2003, well before the issue of Hans Island remerged,  but the optics and timing weren’t great and the Canadian government denied it had anything to do with the dispute.

The exercise took place from Aug. 9 to 30, 2004, involving  600 Canadian Forces and personnel.

Regardless, the issue was now in the collective consciousness of Canadians, and this was just the beginning


On July 20, 2005, then Canadian Defence Minister Bill Graham visited the island to assert Canadian sovereignty over it.

Five days later, the Danish Foreign Office stated,

“We consider Hans Island to be part of Danish territory and will therefore hand over a complaint about the Canadian minister’s unannounced visit.”

On Aug. 18, 2005, the HMCS Fredericton left Halifax for a month-long patrol.

The Canadian government said it had nothing to do with the Hans Island dispute.

Then, two more vessels, the HMCS Glace Bay and HMCS Shawinigan were also sent out on patrols

Canadian soldiers landed on the island, placed an Inuit stone marker called an Inukshuk with a plaque and planted a new Canadian flag there with, you guessed it, a bottle of whiskey.

While it may seem serious with ships and troops visiting the island, overall, the entire issue remained lighthearted.

The Danish Foreign Office stated,

“When Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of Schnapps. And when Canadian military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian Club and a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Canada.”

Both sides also agreed that the dispute was an archaic thing, but that it should be resolved somehow.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen said,

“It is time to stop the flag war. It has no place in the modern, international world. Countries like Denmark and Canada must be able to find a peaceful solution in a case such as this.”

In August 2005  both sides agreed to  no longer tear downflags since they were NATO allies, but they couldn’t stop troops from leaving alcohol or plaques.

Both sides would also inform each other of activities on the island.

Despite this agreement, both sides still claimed  the island for themselves.

Pierre Pettigrew, then Canadian Foreign Minister stated,

“Hans Island is part of the Canadian territory. I have made that very clear this morning, as we have for many years.”

Per Stig Moller, the Danish Foreign Minister responded later in his own press conference,

“Let me emphasize that this arrangement does not in any way entail any limitations to, or weakening of, Denmark’s and Greenland’s claim to Hans Island. We will continue to make routine inspections of the area.”

The dispute eventually went digital .

Denmark bought advertising on Google stating the island belonged to them, and the Canadian government responded with its own advertising stating its claim.

To keep things light,the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that as a goodwill gesture,Danish pastries would be allowed in Canada.

In March 2007, both Denmark and Canada announced they would be installing automated weather stations on the island in the summer of that year.

Beginning in 2012, the two countries began to negotiate on how to deal with the issue of Hans Island and FINALLY  bring an  end to the dispute.

Six years later on May 23, 2018, the countries announced a Joint Task Force to determine the boundary between Canada and Greenland, in order to decide the island’s fate.

So, how was the dispute finally resolved?


The harmless dispute would have likely continued for some time, but then something much more serious brought an end to the debate over Hans Island.

Russia invaded Ukraine.

After the invasion in February 2022, Canada and Denmark decided it was time to set an example and resolved their border dispute in a peaceful manner.

On June 14, 2022, the Canadian and Danish governments signed an agreement to divide the island in half along a natural fault line.

The agreement was signed at 50 Sussex Drive, the Ottawa headquarters of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

[News Conference 35 Seconds]

As a result of this treaty, Canada and the Danish Realm now share an international land border 1.2 kilometres long.

Once ratified, the island will contain the third-shortest land border between countries and the northernmost land border in the world.

The agreement also ensures the Inuit residents of both countries can move freely on the island and the surrounding waters.

Prior to this agreement, Denmark and Canada only shared one land neighbour, Germany, and the United States respectively. After signing the treaty, Canada’s Foreign Minister Melanie Joly and Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod exchanged gifts… and if you guessed they were bottles of alcohol…. you were right

Kofod said,

“We see a gross violation of international rules unfolding in another part of the world. May this agreement inspire other countries to follow the same path.”

This time no one poured out a glass for Hans Island… instead  that bottle of Schnapps found a new home at the Canadian Museum of History.


Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, BBC, Global News, CTV, CBC, The Telegraph, Wikipedia, National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Politico, Adventure Canada, Sandboxx, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Star, North Bay Nugget, Victoria Times Colonist,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx
%d bloggers like this: