‘Bit of a lark:’ Canadian miner files claim on disputed Arctic island

John Robins has filed and been granted a mineral exploration claim under Canadian law to Hans Island

A longtime mining geologist and developer has come up with his own solution to Canada’s long-running Arctic sovereignty dispute with Denmark.

John Robins has filed and been granted a mineral exploration claim under Canadian law to Hans Island — a remote pimple of rock between Ellesmere Island and Greenland that lies exactly on the international border.

“It was done on a bit of a lark,” said Robins, who’s involved with a number of Vancouver-based mining companies. ”The reason I applied for it is more just to stir the pot a bit.”

Hans Island, an uninhabited 1.3-square-kilometre knuckle of rock in the middle of the Kennedy Channel, has been the focus of a half-jocular, half-serious boundary quarrel between Canada and Denmark that began in 1973.

Back then, the two countries set out to draw a conclusive border between Ellesmere and Greenland — at the time a Danish territory. They couldn’t decide what to do about Hans and left it until later.

Later came in 1984. Canadian soldiers landed on the island, dropped off a bottle of Canadian whisky and erected the Maple Leaf.

Soon after, the Danish minister of Greenlandic affairs invaded. He left the Danish flag, a bottle of schnapps and a note that said: “Welcome to the Danish island.” Diplomats are silent on the fate of the whisky.

Canada’s then-defence minister Bill Graham visited in 2005, followed shortly by some Danish soldiers. In 2010, 64 Danish tourists landed and erected a cairn with the Danish flag.

The so-called whisky war goes back and forth. About a year ago, the two countries created a team to try to hammer out a deal to resolve the boundary debate once and for all.

It’s not Robins’s first attempt to beat back the Danes. In 2006, he filed a similar claim, which has since expired.

No valuable mineral deposits are known to exist on Hans Island, although the waters beneath are thought to have potential for oil and gas.

Robins said there’s a serious purpose behind his attempt to use an online mineral claim as a tool of conquest.

“Canada’s been very lax about pushing Arctic sovereignty,” he said.

He also wants to draw attention to what he calls the current government’s neglect of the Arctic — particularly the poor understanding of the vast region’s geology, the foundation of the mining industry.

“We rely on maps that are decades old,” Robins said. ”Often, they’re based on people flying over an area and looking out the window and saying, ‘Yeah, it looks like this rock type.’”

Nevertheless, Canada has a 2005 agreement with Denmark to inform that country about anything involving Hans Island.

Robins’s permit was granted Feb. 4. The next day, Canada let Danish officials know.

“The Canadians have reached out and we are in close contact with them,” confirmed Henning Dobson of Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Michael Byers, an international law professor at the University of British Columbia, said Robins’s claim is a welcome nudge toward settling an old dispute with a friendly country.

“He’s successfully drawn attention to the fact we have an unresolved territorial issue.”

Solutions are easy and obvious, Byers said. The countries could draw a line through Hans that connects the maritime border or agree to manage the island jointly.

“The only thing that is stopping them is concern about domestic politics. No government wants to be accused by its political opponents of surrendering sovereignty.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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