Canada and Denmark have traded barbs, and whisky and schnapps, for over 40 years, and also taken down each other’s flag on an island in the Arctic regularly. That dispute came to a close earlier this year, a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak year underscored by the invasion of Ukraine.
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Greenland is politically a part of Denmark. From 1972 to 2022, Canada and Denmark were involved in a border dispute over Hans Island. The island is located just off the northeastern tip of Canada in the Kennedy Channel, which is between 34 and 32 kilometers wide. Islands closer to either country’s coast are considered part of the country that is closer.
Hans Island was probably known to the Inuit, the natives of this region, for centuries. In the 1930s, Denmark’s claim over the island was proven in a court (which was disbanded in 1946). In 1972, a team of Canadian and Danish experts failed to agree on who owned the island. In 1984, the Danish minister for Greenland, along with his delegation, planted a Danish flag on Hans Island. He also left a note that said “velkommen til den danske ø”. That translates to “Welcome to the Danish Island.” He is also said to have left a bottle of brandy or schnapps.
It is more likely that he left some schnapps for the Canadians because it is more of a traditional spirit in Denmark. Legend has it, the minister actually left a bottle of Gammel Dansk.
A little while later, the Canadians retaliated by pulling down the Danish flag and hoisting the Canadian flag. They also left a note that said “Welcome To Canada”. Their riposte included a bottle of Canadian whisky (Canadian Club) for the marauding Danes, presumably after wolfing down the contents of the offending bottle of Danish schnapps. For some people, Canadian Club will sound familiar because Don Draper, the protagonist of the TV series Mad Men, loved this brand of whisky—it is inexpensive, smooth, and also makes for great cocktails. On the other hand, Gammel Dansk is a morning bitters that not all Danes are proud of, and it is considered something of an “old people” drink by more than a few. In short, it is not known if Canadians like their Canadian Club more than the Danes like their Gammel Dansk. So, was Denmark being more passive-aggressive while Canada was being nice? I mean, whisky for schnapps? Sadly, we’ll never know. On the other hand, neither side will confirm or deny what is done with the enemy’s alcohol, so many just assume it is “disposed of” quickly. The Whisky War was well and truly underway. In retrospect, though, calling it the BYOB War would probably have been more accurate.
This spirited whisky-and-schnapps conflict went on for a while. But it was mostly in good humor. One side goes to the island, replaces the other’s flag, and leaves a note and some booze. Then, the other side retaliates with their own flag, note, and booze. Yes, it was all giggles for a while, but no fight involving alcohol remains cute for too long.
Eventually, the two countries did get serious about this issue, even sending naval ships to patrol the area. There was at least one point in time when a violent incident looked imminent. In 2005, Canada’s defense minister, Bill Graham, went to Hans Island, escalating the issue. We don’t know if he left them the next round of whisky or not. An incensed Denmark sent a heavily armed navy ship to the island. One could assume they didn’t take any schnapps along on that occasion either. The funniest aspect of this “war” is that Hans Island is not even inhabited. The closest human settlement is almost 200 kilometers away.
The foreign ministers of both Canada and Denmark were in New York at the time. They met for a drink (one hopes) and de-escalated the situation. The two governments decided that all flags would be removed from the island and all visits would stop to avoid future provocations. This year, in light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Canada and Denmark settled this issue by establishing a border through the middle of Hans Island. That means Canada now has a border with a European nation. Canadian minister Melanie Joly asked jokingly if Canada would now be allowed to participate in the Eurovision contest.