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Crinkles in the map: Canada's weird borders


Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, December 21, 2014, 8:06 AM -

The north pole was in the news for non-Santa reasons this past week.

Denmark claimed an undersea trench that stretches up to include the pole itself, something that's sure to raise hackles in Canada and Russia, who also say it belongs to them.

Canada, famously, already has a huge amount of territory, and that means a lot of border, too. 

We looked into it, and there's actually a few peculiarities around our country's limits. Here are six of the best.

Bits of the U.S. are totally surrounded by Canadian territory

After a few decades of glaring daggers at each other, plus the War of 1812, the Americans and the British sat down and, over successive treaties, sorted out the borders between the U.S. and British North America.

The biggest agreement was to extend the borders westward along the 49th Parallel. But when you’re basically just drawing a line on a (probably inaccurate) map through lands you’ve never seen yourself, there’s bound to be a few mishaps.

And that’s how the U.S. ended up with bits of itself completely surrounded by Canada. We’ll start with the Northwest Angle:

Legally a part of Minnesota, it’s washed by the waters of Northwest Ontario’s Lake of the Woods, but the main land route is through Manitoba (there is, in fact, a border office, according to this article in Mental Floss).

Its tiny population of around 150 has most of the usual services (including the last one-room schoolhouse in the state), and its biggest economic draw is fishing. 

Getting tourists to fill up the lodges while wetting a few lines was such a big deal for them that when Canadian regulations put them at a serious disadvantage against lodges in Ontario, a minor secession crisis ensued in the 1990s.

That was resolved amicably, and the Angle remains a weird  head-scratcher on the edges of the map … along with Point Roberts, far to the west.

Separated from Metro Vancouver by the unalterable 49th Parallel, the community’s 1,300 people live quite happily alongside their neighbours in Canada. 

Vancouverites nip over there all the time for a specialty burger, or for gas that’s as much as 30 cents cheaper per litre. The National Post says you can even ship yourself something to an address in Point Roberts, then wander over to pick it up yourself to avoid surcharges.

We’re sure it has its disadvantages (the point has produced a few memorable criminals, according to the Post), but given the roaring cross-border trade going on, we doubt Point Roberts plans to join British Columbia anytime soon.

The uninhabited rock between Maine and New Brunswick

Those weird little exclaves are where our two countries actually DID resolve their territorial disputes, but there’s still a couple loose ends.

Most of them are just over maritime boundaries, save one: Machias Seal Island, about 20 km west of New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island.

It’s small, and there’s nothing on it but a Canadian lighthouse (there’s been one on the island since the 1830s, according to Maclean's). There’s no oil or natural gas that anyone knows of. There isn’t so much as a tree. 

American and Canadian lobstermen sometimes get a little testy with one another in the “grey zone” waters around the island, but for the most part, it doesn’t come to blows. There isn’t even a customs office, and although it’s Canadian-occupied, birder expeditions from both Maine and New Brunswick make the occasional trip without incident.

There is a certain element of tit-for-tat, though. Check out this hilarious bit in the National Post about one American who’d boat over with a flag every July 4, and a Canadian birder who’d set up little Maple Leaf flag on every bird’s nest.

The American claim dates back from the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, while the Canadian claim says areas considered part of Nova Scotia (of which New Brunswick was then a part) are exempt. 

Still, while it’s never likely to heat up, it is the very last disputed bit of land between Canada and the U.S., and the New York times called for its resolution in 2012. We’re not holding our breath.

Denmark and Canada fight a border dispute with liquor

And another one from the department of tit-for-tat: Hans Island, a barren rock between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and the Danish home-ruled territory of Greenland.

This article details the “bottle wars” waged between our two nations. A Danish party would come ashore and bury a bottle of Scandinavian liquor, followed later by a Canadian team who’d leave a bottle of Canadian Whiskey. A delicious, if unhelpful, rivalry.

In the mid-2000s, a Danish team raised a flag there, followed by a Canadian expedition to storm the (uninhabited) island and do the same. Luckily, both sides agreed to ease off a bit, agreeing not to do any military ops in the area without letting each other know first.

Seems an awful lot of fuss for a rock that’s 1.3 square kilometres across, until you remember that climate change is making the Arctic more accessible – along with the potentially abundant natural resources beneath the seabed.

There’s a lot of potential for diplomatic tussles over the northern waters, especially in the Arctic Ocean itself. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons/Toubletap [Image License]

The Danes claimed the North Pole last week. We doubt Ottawa and Moscow will take that lying down, but both Denmark and Canada fear giving ground on Hans Island will weaken their claims elsewhere.

At last report, the National Post says Denmark and Canada may be go the Solomonic route and divide the island in half. That would create Canada’s second land border with another country, not to mention the least coveted customs officer job in the Americas.

NEXT: A would-be Canadian tropical paradise


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