On November 25, three out of four Greenlanders voted in a referendum in favour of increased autonomy from Denmark. This vote has naturally attracted some interest and sympathy among other nations and nationalities with substantial independence movements. The following articles present Scottish and Québécois perspectives on the movement toward an independent sovereign Greenland.
The first, by Ray Bell and entitled “Our Friends in the North”, first appeared in the Scotland-based on-line publication Bella Caledonia. It describes the background to the November vote and in particular the difficult transition Greenland is now making from a largely subsistence hunting and fishing economy to a modern one that is resource-based and export-oriented. Still a dependency of Denmark, Greenland is in danger of de facto re-colonization by the United States.
The article correctly, in my view, points to the particularly negative impact climate change will have on Greenland. (I am indebted to the excellent Australian publication Links for drawing my attention to this article.)
Writing in the December-January print issue of the Quebec newspaper L’aut’journal, André Binette adds a Québécois sovereigntist perspective on the Greenland vote, while taking a more positive — and in my view, more questionable — view of what climate change will mean for Greenland. Of particular interest are his observations on the parallels between the situation of Greenland and that of Nunavik, the Inuit territory of Quebec. Binette was co-chair of the Nunavik Commission on governmental autonomy, which issued its report in 2001. My translation from L’aut’journal.
For more information on the Nunavik commission, see “The Nunavik Commission and the Path to Self-Government in Arctic Quebec”, by Gary N. Wilson. Also by Wilson: “Nested Federalism in Arctic Quebec: A Comparative Perspective”.
— Richard Fidler
[from Bella Caledonia]
Our Friends in the North
by Ray Bell
December 1, 2008 — One of Scotland’s largest neighbours has just voted for independence. I don’t mean England, or Ireland, or Scandinavia, but a country which is bigger than all of these combined. And I use the term “neighbour” loosely, because it is a good few hundred miles across the Atlantic from us, and very few readers will have ever been there.
Greenlanders voted by 3-1 for almost total independence last week. I say “almost”, because while they don’t get control of defence or foreign policy, they get control of just about everything else. 32 areas of government will be handed over to them. Every political party, but one, in Greenland backed the “yes” vote. Who couldn’t sympathise with this statement that senior politician Hans Jakob Helms made?
“Home rule was a compromise, it’s a simple fact that home rule has reached its limit and there’s a need for more room for self-government.”
Applied to Scotland, it appears that even the majority of Unionists support this position. The result makes Greenlandic independence pretty much inevitable.
Greenland’s road to independence is a bizarre one. A colony of Denmark for three hundred years, its population is tiny — a mere 57,000 (less than Guernsey), but if it gains full independence, it will be the 13th largest state in the world. 80% of the place is covered in ice, and there is no road network to speak of. People get around by boats or planes. There are about a dozen settlements, mostly tiny, scattered around the island. Traditionally, some of them have had almost nothing to do with one another, just because of the sheer distances involved. It is the largest island in the world — if you don’t count Australia — at eight times the size of Great Britain. At one end, it is near the North Pole, and at the other, the same latitude as parts of Shetland — there are even some trees there. Technically part of North America, its size and remoteness make it almost a continent in its own right.
80% of the people who live in Greenland are Inuit (Eskimos), only 12% are Danes. Under the terms of the referendum, Greenlandic will replace Danish as the language of government. The native Greenlanders are an obviously non-European people, still tribal to an extent, and mainly nomadic in the recent past. The native Greenlanders have massive social problems including a degree of permanent unemployment, bad diet, alcoholism, drug abuse and even AIDS. The suicide rate is also extremely high. While the traditional Inuit lifestyle was a difficult and harsh one, the modern disillusionment and substance abuse are classic results of colonialism, and can be found in places as widely separated as Peru and Tibet, as well as parts of Australia and the USA. By voting “yes”, the Greenlanders have displayed the maturity and self-confidence that they require for a happier future. Greenlandic is now the only official language — even though it has fewer speakers than Scottish Gaelic.
However, Greenland already has some serious problems which are global in nature. One of these is climate change, something impossible to deal with at a purely local level. Greenland features prominently in Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth with good reason. If its ice cap melts, the sea level may rise by twenty five feet everywhere, drowning whole cities and nations. Another theory claims that if it melts, then the Gulf Stream will be set into reverse, and Europe will experience another Ice Age. Neither of these are theories that I’d like to see proven. Further oil drilling and mining will provide jobs and money for the Greenlandic economy, but they also threaten the hunting and fishing many Inuit still rely on, and poison the island’s fragile environment permanently. Greenland’s economy is much less diversified than Scotland’s, and subsidised to the tune of £400 million by Denmark, but the alternatives may prove simply too costly.
If it is not careful, Greenland also risks replacing Denmark with the USA. The island played a surprisingly strategic role in both WW2 and the Cold War. The Americans unsuccessfully tried to buy Greenland off the Danes for $100,000,000. In 1953, the Danes allowed them to set up the Thule base in the far north of the island. It was the most northerly American base anywhere, and allowed the US to monitor Soviet activity in the Arctic. With shades of Britain’s Diego Garcia — in 1999, the Danish High Court ruled that the base was on Inuit land, and that the inhabitants had been illegally evicted. Shortly after this ruling, it also emerged that a B52 had crashed near there in 1968. It had been carrying H-bombs, and an estimated 1,700 people were exposed to radiation. The base is still there. Some people argue that an independent Greenland would be unable to defend itself, but its relationship with the USA is going to be one sided from the outset.
But what Greenland has done is brave, and we should respect them for it. As one Welsh blog http://www.british-nats-watch.blogspot.com/ puts it:
“Now, if Greenland, a nation of 57,000 people, speaking what many of our fellow-country men would probably call ‘a silly language which nobody speaks’, has the confidence to have more power, what the hell is stopping Wales?”
When it comes to self-determination, the Nordic countries have a much better record than most. I suspect there are several reasons for this, one of them being that it is much easier for the likes of Greenland to deal with a nation of several million, than one of tens or hundreds of millions. Secondly, the remoteness of many parts of the Nordic countries meant that it was more practical for a number of decisions to be taken locally to begin with. Denmark’s other colonies, such as the now independent Norway and Iceland, or the nearly independent Faroe Islands, all neighbours of Scotland, have been given much fairer hearings by Copenhagen than they would have done from London. For example, since WWII, the population of the Faroe Islands has doubled, while that of the Shetland Islands has halved. It’s worth remembering that Greenland got its parliament in 1979, the very year that Scotland’s own vote for an assembly was sabotaged. Since then, Greenland has never looked back. Scotland, on the other hand, is only just getting over that defeat.
A Short History of Greenland
The first people arrived in Greenland over four thousand years ago, although it has not been continuously inhabited since then. It is thought that the ancestors of the Inuit arrived in about 1200.
Southern Greenland’s European connection goes as far back as 980, when it was discovered and settled by the Norse. Their numbers were never particularly great. By the 15th century, Greenland’s white population appears to have died out, due to worsening climate, unsuitable farming methods which eroded the thin soil, and conflict with Inuit who came in from the north. They did not leave much of a legacy, other than a few ruins, and a mere 5% of Greenlandic DNA.
The Europeans returned in the early 18th century with disastrous consequences. The missionary Hans Egede heard stories in Norway of the Norse settlement in Greenland, and decided to find out whether it still existed. He established Godthåb (Nuuk), the capital, and set about converting the natives and wrote down their language for the first time. He also translated the Bible — an incredible feat as Greenlandic lacked words for “bread”, “sheep”, “wine” and other important Christian imagery: his version of the Lord’s Prayer includes the surreal line “Give us today our harbour seal.”
Within a few years, a smallpox epidemic had wiped out large numbers of Inuit, and their shamans were being tried for witchcraft. The Europeans’ intensive hunting, fishing and whaling made it harder for the Inuit to obtain food, and some of them were also abducted or raped by sailors. By the end of the 18th Century, Greenland was an official Danish colony.
During the 19th century, the first newspaper in Greenlandic appeared, and the first district assemblies. In 1911, two regional assemblies were established, one for the north and one for the south. It was not until 1951 that they were merged. These assemblies were not a form of home rule — they were more like local councils, and all their business was conducted in Danish.
In the late 19th century, a Greenlander actually reached Scotland by kayak after being blown off course. He died soon afterwards, but his boat can still be seen in a museum.
In the early 20th century, the USA and Canada claimed parts of Greenland. In 1946, the USA attempted to buy all of it from Denmark, but the Danes refused. In the 1930s, Norway laid claim to a section of east Greenland, but the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in Denmark’s favour. In 1951, Denmark and the US signed a defence treaty, and the Thule base was established two years later.
By 1953, Greenland was no longer officially a Danish colony, and was allowed to elect MPs to the Danish parliament. Proper welfare and medical programmes were initiated, and most of the population started to move into towns. Greenland’s integration with Denmark meant it became part of the EEC in 1973, even though 70% of Greenlanders voted against joining it in the referendum.
In 1978, Greenlanders voted for devolution, and a year later, a 31 seat parliament was set up. All Danish place names were replaced by their Greenlandic versions. In 1982, 53% of Greenlanders voted to leave the EEC, while Denmark itself stayed in. This put Greenland in a strange political position, but not a unique one — the Isle of Man, Bermuda, the Faroe Islands, Canary Islands and Madeira are amongst those nations currently outside the EU, but still controlled by members of it.
In 1985, Greenland’s flag was designed, and in 1996, the international Arctic Council, an environmental body, was established, with Greenland as a founder member.
In November, 2008, three quarters of Greenlanders voted “yes”…
The future of Greenland
The more the ice melts, the closer is independence
75% of electorate vote for increased autonomy
by André Binette
On November 25, 2008, Greenland held a referendum — its most recent step toward independence. More than 75% of the electorate voted in favour of increased autonomy and sharing of natural resources revenues with the colonial power, Denmark. A new sovereign state is expected to appear in a few years in Quebec’s neighbourhood.
In a recent report on Greenland, one of the island’s political personalities summarized the situation by telling a journalist with the French daily Le Monde: “Vive le Québec libre!”
Greenland is one of the largest islands in the world. Its territory of more than two million square kilometres is larger than Quebec’s but its population is less than 60,000 persons, a large majority of them Inuit. Its land and its waters, up to now buried under ice, contain immense natural resources.
According to the American Geological Institute, the Arctic area contains unexplored reserves of 90 billion barrels of oil, not to mention natural gas — 22% of the world’s potential hydrocarbon reserves. Furthermore, Greenland has an abundance of minerals. No oil deposits have yet been confirmed, but some multinationals have begun drilling offshore.
Geographically, Greenland is part of North America. Culturally, it is part of the historic Inuit sphere that extends from Siberia around the North Pole. Politically, it is attached to western Europe.
The aboriginal peoples of North America, who call our continent Turtle Island, consider Greenland to be the turtle’s head. Visually, with a little imagination, you can find the image of this head on the maps. According to the aboriginal tradition, the mythical turtle’s legs are formed by Florida, Alaska and Baja California in Mexico. The Laurentians are part of its shell.
Greenland was once inhabited by the Vikings. They encountered the Inuit who had come from Asia, and ultimately they yielded the land to them after five centuries of difficult cohabitation. It became a Danish colony in the early 18th century. After the Second World War, Denmark decided to make it a Scandinavian-style welfare state. In 1979, it granted the island political autonomy while maintaining control over its foreign policy and defence.
Greenland exercised its autonomy in 1985 when it withdrew from the European Union, to which Denmark belongs. This is the only known case so far of withdrawal from the EU. However, Nuuk, the capital, continues to have relations with Brussels and other inter-governmental organizations, primarily the Arctic Council.
In that Council, Greenland sits alongside Denmark together with five other sovereign states, including Canada, and some aboriginal organizations. Greenland’s international personality is in some respects more established than Quebec’s.
The Greenland independentist movement is well known in northern Europe and in the Arctic region. The Icelandic singer Björk, recently expelled from China after expressing her support for the Tibetan cause during a concert in Shanghai, has produced a video showing identical support for the independence of Greenland.
Few people are aware that Canada shares a border with three other sovereign states: the United States, of course, but also France (at Saint-Pierre and Miquelon) and Denmark (at Greenland). There are no international waters between the waters of the Canadian Arctic and those of Greenland. The Canadian and Danish Armed Forces are required to collaborate regularly in this region.
The political system that now exists in Greenland resembles that of Quebec. The chief of state is the Queen of Denmark. The Danish High Commissioner symbolically represents the Danish Crown and plays a role comparable to that of the Governor General in Ottawa and the Lieutenant Governor in Quebec.
The Danish and Greenland parliamentary systems are close to the one we inherited from the United Kingdom. The parliament in Nuuk has 31 members. The prime minister of Greenland and his ministers are all Inuit, but many senior officials and deputy ministers who manage the public administration are of Danish origin. All adult inhabitants have the right to vote and are entitled to public services irrespective of their ethnic origin.
The standard of living is one of the highest in the Arctic region and compares favorably with that of the Inuit of Canada (in Nunavut) and Quebec (in Nunavik). Denmark provides close to 700 million dollars (US) annually in financial assistance (60% of Greenland’s GDP).
However, the Greenland independentist movement is very vigorous. The political parties differ mainly over their strategy for achieving independence. Since the Danish authorities announced several years ago that they would not oppose independence but that Copenhagen’s financial support would then come to an end, the debate has centered on the capacity of the future state to maintain the standard of living and social programs to which all the inhabitants are now accustomed. The November 25 referendum was a high point in this debate.
The natural resources revenue sharing agreement with Denmark essentially provides for equal shares up to the amount of Denmark’s annual financial assistance. Beyond that, all revenue will revert to Greenland. Understandably, the question of independence will then be definitively posed.
Greenland is one of the rare societies that rejoices in climate change. Geophysical research has shown that such changes have occurred naturally many times in the past.
As its name signifies, the Vikings maintained some fertile farms in Greenland during the natural warming around the year 1000. Greenlanders are not only happy to see the temperature become milder again and crops diversify once more, but they note that the melting of the ice will provide access to petroleum and mineral resources in their subsoil and surrounding waters. They will have the resources for independence, as they have long dreamed.
Everyone knows the strategic importance that the Arctic will have in the coming decades. Global warming will give it unprecedented importance in commercial, energy, environmental and military terms. Canadian sovereignty itself will probably be increasingly challenged in this region, even by our American friends who have never recognized this sovereignty over the waters surrounding the islands in the Canadian Far North.
The November 25 referendum was not only on the revenue-sharing agreement. The treaty signed with Denmark last spring and approved by the voters provided for a gradual repatriation of 32 areas of jurisdiction including public security and the coast guard. Natural resources will belong to Greenland and the island’s government will decide how and to whom development permits will be allocated.
Moreover, the treaty provides that Greenland may, on its own initiative, begin the process of accession to independence. And the treaty recognizes Greenlandic, which is very close to the Quebec Inuktitut, as the official language, and Greenlanders as a people within the meaning of international law.
Quebec is the only Arctic province of the Canadian federation, but it generally ignores this component of its identity. Under the Canadian constitution, a province’s territory stops at the water line, which means that many islands situated a few hundred meters or several kilometers away, and frequented since time immemorial by the Inuit of Nunavik, are not located in Quebec.
The Inuit have never ceased to frequent them, and consequently they hold aboriginal rights over some territories situated outside of Quebec.
However, there is no doubt that the maritime territory of a sovereign Quebec would be larger than that of the province of Quebec. International law would in theory give the new sovereign state a coastal strip of 12 nautical miles and major exclusive rights over an additional area of 188 nautical miles, for a total of 200 miles.
This would considerably up the ante in this region in terms of fishing, environmental protection and the development of natural resources, for example. A sovereign Quebec would be entitled to one half of Hudson Bay and some serious claims over the Strait of Ungava (not to mention the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but that’s another question).
Meanwhile, even if it is still not sovereign, Quebec could ask to sit on the Arctic Council with the same status as Greenland.
That would reaffirm its international personality after its more or less successful entry into UNESCO. The Arctic Council is used to the active presence of a non-sovereign state. The precedent was created long ago. The Canadian government would be severely criticized should it oppose this.
However, Quebec should be extremely careful in its ongoing negotiations over the autonomy of Nunavik. Reforming the institutions established under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is fully justified and should have been done a long time ago, for they are too complicated and often non-functional for such a small population (10,000 people).
But any significant increase in Nunavik’s autonomy must now take into account the attractiveness of a future independent Greenland, especially if this new state were to become rich thanks to petrodollars.
On a more personal note, I had the exceptional privilege of visiting Greenland in 2000, at the invitation and expense of the Canadian government, while serving on the commission on governmental autonomy of Nunavik.
At the time I met with many of the island’s political personalities and discussed at length with them. Among these persons were the Danish High Commissioner, the speaker of the Parliament (who was the brother of the prime minister), an historic leader of the main independentist party (then the principal opposition party), and the deputy minister of external affairs.
These persons were well-informed about the Canada-Quebec constitutional question and the claims of the Inuit of Nunavik over Quebec territory during the referendum campaign in 1995.
These conversations convinced me of the generalized desire of the people of Greenland to proceed to independence within the near future notwithstanding the presence of a relatively enlightened colonizer state.
My discussions with a Canadian diplomat posted in Copenhagen also indicated to me that this question was preoccupying the Canadian government because of its possible attraction for the Inuit of Nunavut and Nunavik.
Moreover, in the public meetings that I co-chaired in a dozen or so villages of Quebec’s Nunavik and in my conversations with political leaders in that region it was soon evident that for many Quebec Inuit the dream of a single country composed of Greenland, Nunavut and Nunavik was quite substantial, and that the independence of Greenland, the creation of Nunavut in 1999, and the establishment of a future autonomous government in Nunavik were perceived as major steps in that direction.
These discussions aroused in me some concern about the territorial integrity of Quebec. I felt torn between my love for Inuit culture and spontaneous sympathy for a legitimate aspiration for autonomy, and the desire to avoid contributing to a future parcellization of Quebec’s territory.
To this day I remain convinced that the major challenge to the territorial unity of a sovereign Quebec will come from Nunavik. The events of recent years in Kosovo and elsewhere have reinforced that opinion.
My present practice in aboriginal law has shown me that there is no real desire for secession from Quebec or Canada among the other First Nations, notwithstanding the frequent use of sovereigntist vocabulary for the purpose of enforcing fundamental rights.
Finally, after much thinking, I decided not to sign the report of the Nunavik commission. This was the most difficult decision in my career. A Parti Québécois minister pressured me to change my opinion but he soon understood that no such thing would happen.