Canadian wins right to prospect Hans Island

“We saw this as a small way to do our part to help”



Every year Vancouver geologist John Robins fills out applications for thousands of kilometres of prospecting permits.

Last year, on a lark, he included the 1.3 square kilometres of disputed Hans Island and was as surprised as anyone when he got a permit to explore it.

“To be honest, we didn’t put a lot of thought into it and we didn’t think we would get it,” said Robins, of the Hunter Exploration Group.

After receiving word that the permit was approved, Robins paid $57 for a five-year licence to explore for minerals on the rocky island that lies between Ellesmere Island and northern Greenland.

“We’re very active in the eastern Arctic in mineral exploration,” said Robins. “And I am a big believer in Canadian sovereignty.

We saw this as a small way to do our part to help, but there was a certain element of humor in it.”

The dispute over the island goes back to 1973, when Canada and Denmark drew the borders in Nares Strait between Canada and Greenland, but delayed any final decision over Hans Island. The island made headlines recently when Canada and Denmark asserted competing claims to it.

Anna North, the mining recorder with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in Iqaluit, admits she was surprised when she saw the permit application, but said her office treated it like any other permit and notified the proper departments, which in this case was Foreign Affairs Canada.

“We communicated with Foreign Affairs so that they knew what was going on,” she said. Although the application caught her attention, she said that it seemed less unusual when she saw who made the application.

“I am well aware of this prospector and he has always done things a little differently,” said North. “He has done some groundbreaking exploration in the eastern Arctic and has discovered diamonds where no one else thought to look.”

Robins intends to visit the island over the next few years. The permit gives him exclusive rights to explore the island and he estimates that it will cost $100,000 to physically stake a claim. He has received a letter from Foreign Affairs Canada requesting that he inform them about when he plans to go to the island so they can notify Denmark and avoid an international incident.

Although the application was made with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, Robins is not completely discounting the possibility of finding something on the island. “The bulk of northern Canada, and the High Arctic in particular, remains virtually unexplored. We don’t know what the potential is,” he said.

The potential for the permit to help Canada’s sovereignty claim on the island is small, says Michael Byers, an international law professor at the University of British Columbia.

He likens the situation to several countries that have claims to Antarctica and keep post offices there for the sole purpose of demonstrating what is known as “effective occupation.”

“It’s not massively significant, but it could help in a small way,” said Byers. “It’s not so much about the prospector, but the government’s action in granting the permit.”

Byers sees the Hans Island dispute as a convenient way for politicians to flex their muscles on sovereignty. “Hans Island presents an opportunity for Canadian and Danish politicians to thump their chests before elections because it’s totally irrelevant,” he said.

“You don’t want to pick a fight with the U.S. about sovereignty issues that really matter, like the Northwest Passage or the Beaufort Sea.”

He sees the obvious solution as Canada and Denmark designating the island as a shared nature reserve, which could be a done deal after a signing a standard document that Byers says he could take 15 minutes to draft.

But the advantage of the attention that Hans Island receives is its educational value. Byers thinks that if southern Canadians are drawn to look northward it can only lead them to ask more questions about other issues in the North.

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