Thursday, August 12, 2004

Hans Island Update 

As I first discussed here, Canada and Denmark are puffing up their feathers over their rival claims to a tiny island in the arctic. While it hasn't yet developed to the point of the Spratly Islands dispute, the Canadian Prime Minister highlighted the dust-up in a speech yesterday, and things appear to be getting more serious [Calgary Sun]:
Canada and Denmark are currently arguing over ownership of Hans Island, a desolate piece of rock -- so small it's not on many maps -- between Ellesmere Island and the northwestern tip of Greenland.

Danish military personnel recently visited the island to reinforce their country's claim to it.

In apparent response, some 500 military Canadian personnel, including troops from Gagetown, N.B., Griffon helicopters and the frigate HMCS Montreal will converge on the area for exercise Narwhal, starting Aug. 20.

While this is seen by analysts as part of an effort to re-establish more of a Canadian military presence in the Arctic after years of neglect, it probably won't escalate into a shooting match with Denmark, said Scott Taylor, publisher of Espirit de Corps magazine.

"We're both NATO allies, so it's not likely to go too far," said Taylor, adding the far north is as impossible to conquer as it is to defend.

"The strategy's been the way to defend the Arctic is not to rescue any fool dumb enough to invade there," Taylor said with a laugh.

Though they may outnumber our troops, the Danish forces are far from being a world power, he added.

"The Danes don't have nuclear-powered submarines, so we're safe," Taylor said.
The Vancouver Sun has more (in a somewhat overheated vein):

Two weeks from now, Canada's depleted and far-flung military diverts its attention from hot spots such as Afghanistan, the Balkans and Haiti, and invades the Arctic.

There'll be a navy frigate, Royal Canadian Regiment troops, coast guard cutters, Griffon helicopters, Aurora patrol planes and satellites overhead; more than 500 personnel descending on Baffin Island in the biggest Far North military operation in decades.

Behind it lies the ominous fact that a no-holds-barred diplomatic war is about to break out over Canada's claimed sovereignty of the islands and waters of the Arctic archipelago. And it's a war we could very well lose.

After half a century of grand visions followed by piecemeal forays into the great, icy heartland of the North, our long-presumed jurisdiction is back on the front-burner and open to serious international challenge after a decade of neglect...

While Canada contends the passage is ours, the Americans regard it as an international strait linking the Atlantic and Pacific.

More than 30 years ago they made the point by sending the USS Manhattan, a tanker with a reinforced, ice-crushing bow through the waterway without requesting Canadian permission. This was followed in 1985 by the icebreaker Polar Sea following the trail blazed by the Manhattan.

American and British nuclear submarines frequently cruise beneath the ice pack -- even surfacing at the North Pole. Russian submarines have been reported in Cumberland Sound off Baffin Island and a Chinese government research vessel popped up unannounced in Tuktoyaktuk in 1999...

Outside of exercises such as this month's operation on Baffin Island, the military presence in the North is virtually zero, apart from a skeletal area headquarters in Yellowknife, a few planes and an electronic espionage operation at Canadian Forces Station Alert.

"Can the Canadians pull this off in a military sense?" asks the Canada Project's Sands. "Not likely. It's tough. But go back 200 years and ask how Canada has survived as a nation alongside the U.S. -- not militarily. It has survived by making agreements to the point where the U.S. says there's no point in invading.

Back in the 1950s, in a flurry of concern over the sovereignty issue, Canada turned to the Inuit for a Band-Aid response. Native communities in northern Quebec were shipped north in RCMP cutters to populate barren islands and thus bolster Canada's claims of jurisdiction.

Today, ironically, it's once more the Inuit who fly the flag in scattered tiny communities across the North and give Canada a tenuous military presence in the vast reaches of the Arctic.

Militarily, however, the operation of the Canadian Rangers in a high-tech world of satellite surveillance and nuclear submarines is little more than useless.

The recruited Inuit, carrying ancient .303 rifles and wearing Ranger baseball caps, combine regular hunting trips with official patrols, keeping an outdoorsman's keen eye open for any foreign or suspicious presence among the ice flows.

"This is an area of tens of thousands of square miles and to imagine that the Inuit can patrol it with rifles and travelling on Ski-Doos is pretty naive at best," says Conservative MP Peter Goldring, who deplores cuts in patrols by Aurora surveillance aircraft.
UPDATE: Read the comments! Jonathan "Head Heeb" Edelstein has posted the initial fruits of his research into the 1950s-era Inuit resettlement initiative mentioned in the post above. Turns out things weren't quite as neutral as the article seems to suggest...

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