From "The Return of the Vikings" by Rob Heubert Ph.D.:
Thus the real problem of the modern day Vikings is not over Hans Island itself, but in that it demonstrates how bare the Canadian cupboard is to defend the Canadian north! The Canadian ability to know what is happening in the north and to subsequently act, is almost nonexistent. Given the fact Canadian northern boundaries are constantly being challenged by others, Canadians should be concerned.
Not much point about being the True North is we can't even see north, now is there? So who else is lusting after the Canadian Arctic?
First, the Danes:
[The location of Hans Island] location affects the manner by which the maritime boundary is determined between northern Greenland and Canada. In turn, this international boundary takes on significance for three reasons. First, these waters contain important fish stocks including turbot and shrimp. The boundary will affect the northern divisions of this resource. Secondly, it has been reported that Greenland Inuit have been crossing over to Baffin Island to engage in illegal polar bear hunts. The Canadian Rangers have been dispatched to Baffin Island but have not caught any of the alleged hunters. If it proves to have been a long-term habit, it is conceivable that the Greenland homeland government could argue that the hunt is an established right. Thus, any boundary dispute between Canada and Denmark could exacerbate that situation. Thirdly, the impact of climate change is expected to cause substantial warming of the Polar region. Thus, while the region is remote and inhospitable, this could change rapidly as the region warms.
The possibility also exists that Canada and Russia may have overlapping claims for the continental shelf in the high Arctic. But since Canada has never bothered to ratify the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, it has yet to determine the northern limits of its shelf! Thus, it is not yet known if a dispute exists.
The United States still maintains that the Northwest Passage is an international strait and not internal waters as Canada claims; and the northern maritime boundary between Alaska and Yukon is disputed.
So laugh it up about being able to take on Denmark. After them is the Russian Bear and the American Eagle.
Not so funny now.
If Canada cannot effectively fend off Denmark, diplomatically or otherwise, any attempt to mediate disputes with Russia and the US will be doomed to fail, the precedent being set that Canada cannot assert control.
Control is based on a monopoly on violence. That is the foundation of government. Democracy, monarchy, dictatorship -- they're all the same inasmuch as any government of any form exists only for as long as it is the only entity within that geographic area that can assert its will by violent means.
Think about a failed state like Somalia. Every region, every city block, had its own warlord with his own private army. The same goes for the wild regions of Pakistan. The importance on building the Iraq security forces up is tied to this same principle.
Do we have to be able to beat the Danes or the Russians or the Americans? Not necessarily, and that's a good thing, since the Americans could beat anyone. A monopoly on violence can be maintained if you can convince a stronger power that a victory over you will be too expensive compared to what would be won. That expense can be in terms of milltary losses suffered despite a victory in battle, or in terms of lost trade, or in terms of the diplomatic cost. Usually, it is a combination of all three. It is hard to control trade and diplomatic relations, though. An aggressor country might enjoy such an inbalance of trade such that an embargo would have little effect. Similarly, it might succeed in isolating you diplomatically before attacking.
At the end of the day, the only factor you have complete control over is your military. As long as you can beat the other guy, or make certain that he'll regret it even if he wins, then he'll leave that area to you, and you can maintain your monopoly on violence and thus your sovereignty.
One more thing -- it's not just nation-states you have to worry about. Criminal organizations and terrorist groups often fill the vacuum where a nation-state fails to maintain a monopoly on violence. The corollary is true -- a monopoly on violence works against the ability of these sorts of groups to become a real danger.
The problem is that, militarily, Canada can do nothing to challenge other powers, nation-states or otherwise, in the Far North:
The incident involving the Danish vessel highlights the problem of Canada's ability to know and defend its interests in the north. Canada has an extremely limited ability to know what is happening in its northern regions and an even lesser ability to respond. Unlike vessels entering Canadian waters on its east and west coasts, foreign vessels entering Canadian northern waters are requested, but not required, to report their presence. The problem is compounded by Canada not having a comprehensive surveillance capability that a designated satellite system would provide. RadarSat1 proves that Canadian industry has the capability to build such a system, but the government decided some time ago that the purchase of a system only for northern surveillance, was too expensive.
Too expensive? Then just hand the North over to the Danes, the Russians, and the Americans. They seem to think it's worth it. The American and Russians have nuclear submarines designed specifically for under-ice work (though the Russian ones are probably rusting away). And the Danes?
They have not come in the traditional long-boats, but in a modern, ice-strengthened frigate. This past summer, the Danish government sent the frigate Vaedderen to patrol the waters between the northwest corner of Greenland and Ellesmere Island. The Danes have regularly been sending warships to this area for quite some time now.
What about our ice-hardened frigates? I mean Canada must have ice-hardened frigates. We're an Arctic country, for crying out loud:
Unlike the Danes, none of our naval vessels are ice-strengthened, thus only the Coast Guard's icebreakers can actually voyage to the region surrounding Hans Island.
Great. Ice-breakers. Well, better than nothing I suppose:
Even more troubling is the condition of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) ice-breaking fleet. It is very professional and one of the most highly trained fleets in the world, but it is small, aging and drastically underfunded. Compounding the limited number of vessels is the fact that the operational budget of these vessels has been continually reduced in the past decade to the point where the Coast Guard cannot operate these vessels all year round.
So what right do we have to claim any of the North, much less Hans Island? Not only can we not assert our will, we don't appear to have the will to be assertive.
That Canada has nominal sovereignty over the Far North has more to do with the decency of the Americans, the far distance of the Danes, and the financial and political troubles plaguing the Russians. (Oh, and the fact that the Americans would rather have us in charge than the Russians or any European power. The moment Canada is clearly unable to fulfill that function, the Americans will move in and we'll be told to go home.) Canada is the True North by default -- the other players haven't really shown up to play. One day, they might -- over fishing rights, over undersea oil and gas, over northern diamonds, over access to the North-West Passage, or just because they feel like it. I doubt Canada will be ready, and will be reduced to making bleating noises about international law and fairness. Actually that might be dangerous -- a determined foe (a nation-state, a criminal syndicate, or a terrorist group) would see such a pathetic display as a sign that Canada is unable to assert sovereignty anywhere within its territory.
That might get them wondering what other tasty tidbits are worth gobbling up.