Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hans Island: Who's On First?

Is Pierre Pettigrew backing down on Hans Island?

Just days after it began negotiations with Denmark over the ownership of Hans Island, the Canadian government appears to be backing away from a key argument in its claim for the remote island -- that it was discovered by Britain and therefore ceded to Canada in the 19th century.

Throughout the controversy over which nation now has sovereignty over Hans Island, located in a narrow channel between Ellesmere Island and Danish-controlled Greenland, Canada has argued its claim is rooted in the island's discovery by British explorers.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew conceded government experts are still gathering historical evidence to build Canada's case. He is open to the suggestion that the island was first sighted by an American explorer, acknowledging there are competing claims about the discovery.


Denmark's ambassador to Canada, Poul Kristensen, has argued Hans Hendrik first spotted the island that would bear his name during a June 1854 sledge journey along the northwest coast of Greenland. Records from that expedition, led by American captain Elisha Kent Kane, make no specific mention of the island, although it is generally accepted that Hendrik and his American companion on the overland trek, William Morton, probably came within sight of it.

First discovery, in itself, doesn't confer sovereignty in international law. But if Pettigrew is switching positions in the middle of negotiations because Foreign Affairs didn't have its research done properly, he's going to look awfully foolish in negotiations with the Danes.

Of course, he could just depute his chauffeur to carry out the negotiations, since he seems to have a wealth of talents and Pettigrew's unqualified confidence in them.

Ottawa Citizen

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