John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, January 27, 2011
Negotiators are now confident that Canada and Denmark will resolve their dispute over Hans Island, and sooner rather than later.
Relations between the two countries have grown irritable at times in recent years because of their competing claims to the barren bit of rock perched halfway between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Also in dispute is a patch of the Lincoln Sea even farther north.
But the two countries are in negotiations and have embarked on a joint mapping exercise, and both Canadian and Danish officials, speaking on background, said they were confident of reaching an agreement before Canada deposits its claim over the Arctic seabed to the United Nations in 2013.
Shared jurisdiction of the island is one possibility; another is running the border down the middle of the uninhabited, 1.3-square-kilometre knoll, which would give Canada a land border with Denmark.
In a recent poll, a large majority of Canadians said that asserting and protecting Arctic sovereignty should be Canada’s foremost foreign policy priority. In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon insisted that it was.
“We continue to exercise our sovereignty in the Arctic while also making progress on outstanding boundary issues,” Mr. Cannon said.
In fact, negotiations are beginning to bear fruit after years in which Canada refused to discuss competing claims. The United States and Canada have long disagreed over where the border between Alaska and Yukon should be drawn, as it projects into the Beaufort Sea. While the Americans have sought a negotiated settlement, Canada preferred to agree to disagree.
But there is oil under the seabed, and petroleum companies are anxious to get at it. Last year, the Conservative government declared its willingness to reach a deal. The two countries have embarked on a joint mapping expedition of the ocean floor.
That exercise may not be completed until 2013, because the ice is too thick for much of the year, and a Canadian government official speaking on background said it might not be possible to complete an agreement until after then. In the meantime, a bilateral “dialogue of experts” is underway, with the next meeting scheduled for Washington in the spring.
Some Arctic-watchers believe the slow pace of the talks over the Beaufort is frustrating an impatient Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“The people at Foreign Affairs already have very full plates,” said Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia who specializes in Arctic issues. “They don't see the urgency of negotiations now when a solution probably isn't doable this year or even next year. So you have this tension between the Prime Minister's Office, which wants to see progress, and the department, which doesn't see it as a top priority.”
But Canadians officials maintained the pace had been agreed to with the American government. The Americans and Canadians “are committed to a win-win” agreement that satisfies both sides that their interests have been protected, one official said.
The U.S. government agrees. “Our technical teams have held productive meetings on the Beaufort boundary in the past,” the embassy said in a statement. “We look forward to continued discussions in the future.”
The nations that encircle the Arctic have agreed, under the Law of the Sea convention, to submit their claims over what they believe is their fair share of the Arctic seabed to the United Nations for arbitration. Canada’s deadline is 2013.
The UN will not arbitrate in areas where there is a border dispute, and an agreement over the Beaufort border is unlikely before 2014. But officials say this is only a minor impediment, especially since the U.S. hasn’t ratified the treaty anyway.
As for the biggest dispute of all, who controls the Northwest Passage, none of the players has even agreed to talk about it, and no resolution to the question of whether it is in Canadian or international waters is expected in the foreseeable future.
For the original text, see: Hans Island and Beaufort Sea