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Resumé af Eva Luusi Marcussen-Mølgaards speciale

Specialetitel: The Reconciliation Process in Greenland – creating a distance from the consequences of colonization?


The purpose of the thesis was to examine where postcolonial Greenland stands in relation to mental decolonization. Using the Greenlandic Reconciliation Commission as a case study, I aim to show the nuances and complexities of this topic from a Greenlandic perspective.

When the former Prime Minister of Greenland first aired idea for a reconciliation commission in 2013 it was met with conflicting reactions, both in Greenland and Denmark. One of the primary goals was that Greenland should become independent "in her lifetime", and as part of the way to independence the government coalition agreement of March 2013 A United Country – a United People, included a short passage saying: “On the impact of colonial times: In order to create a distance from the colonization of our country, it is necessary that reconciliation and forgiveness take place” (Naalakkersuisut 2013; Andersen 2020).

Articles and opinion pieces in newspapers showed mostly scepticism about a commission that would focus on the consequences of Danish colonization, specifically the modernization and Danification period after 1953. The scepticism increased when the former Danish Prime Minister declined the idea for Danish participation in a reconciliation process, famously stating that “We do not need reconciliation (…)” (Gaardman 2014). As a result, an internal reconciliation commission was formed, with a focus only on Greenland.

Saammaateqatigiinnissamut Isumalioqatigiissitaq, the Greenland Reconciliation Commission (GRC) was established based on the understanding that today’s social challenges in Greenland are the result of Danish colonization. Aleqa Hammond, the former Prime Minister, mentioned the high suicide rates in Greenland as one of the reasons to establish GRC. According to Peter Bjerregaard and Christina V. L. Larsens' research (2015) the suicide rate has grown continuously since the 1960s and was at its peak in the 1980s. With around 80-100 per 100,000 people, it remains the highest in the world (Leineweber & Arensman 2010).

With the implementation of the Self-Government in 2009, the Greenlandic people were recognized as a people with the right to declare independence if the majority wanted it.

In 2017 the commission’s report was handed in to the Ministers at Naalakkersuisut (Government of Greenland). The result were seven recommendations, including recommendation for ”Greenland history - seen through our eyes”, a new research institute for history and reconciliation, and a recommendation to issue a public apology (GRC 2017).

I became interested in GRC when I read the 2017-report during my postgraduate studies. It made me wonder why the idea of a reconciliation in Greenland provoked such strong reactions, both in Greenland and Denmark, and how such a relevant and local based research can be controversial and be met with indifference at the same time.

In 2020 another wave of discussions around Danish colonization began, this time with more direct action and words being used, such as ‘decolonization’, ‘systemic racism’, and a wish to move a statue that was seen as a symbol of Danish colonialism.

The questions raised in the thesis were:

  1. how the GRC is compared to other countries’ Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
  2. whether the GRC’s recommendations can be related to postcolonial theorists' observations and experiences from other former colonies
  3. how the GRC has been received, and
  4. what is happening today in relation to ‘mental decolonization’ in Greenland after the GRC has officially ended. 

Method and theory

My study began by analyzing the discourse around Greenlandic Reconciliation Commission (GRC) both from Greenland and Denmark, from 2013 to 2019. The empirical research was conducted by examining and categorizing newspaper and online articles that mentioned the GRC in various contexts. In total, I analyzed over 300 articles to find the different categories the GRC was discussed in relations to. I also used mostly social media and online articles to analyze the discourse around Hans Egede statue, because of the bigger engagement on those media at that time (Turnowski 2020; Marvik 2020)..

The theoretical framework used in the thesis are postcolonial theories (Said 1978, 1994; McLeod 2000), and specifically theories about mental decolonization (Ngugi 1986; Tuhiwai- Smith 2008[1999]; Fanon [1956]1986). An important theory the thesis is working from is the notion that a former colonized country can still be ‘colonized in the mind’ (Ngugi 1986), even if the country has become independent, or as in Greenland, has gained a level of autonomy. One of the basic strategies of colonialism is to make the colonized believe that they have a lower status than the colonists and to make them accept this lower status. This process of internalization has been called mental colonization (McLeod 2000: 18). But if a mental colonization can take place, then it must also be possible to take the initiative for a mental decolonization, as postcolonial theorists have pointed out.

In the analysis of the public debate around the GRC, I used discourse analysis, where I use the concept of discourse as Sara Mills has described it (1997). Mills writes that discourses are not just sets of utterances, but that they are regulated groupings of utterances or statements with internal rules specific to the discourse itself (1997: 48). The discourse analysis makes visible the support mechanisms that hold a statement in place. Mills further explains that discourses structure our understanding of reality (1997: 48, 51). By incorporating the theories to the empirical research, I started to see patterns that could answer the questions raised in my thesis.


Indigenous Peoples and Reconciliation Commissions

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are used in many countries that have been through conflicts and colonial histories. Governments create these commissions to process e.g. civil wars and genocide, when there has been a violation of human rights or in a change of government from dictatorship to democracy. Legally, these conflict mediations belong to Transitional Justice (TJ). One of the most well-known Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu after the end of the apartheid regime. The purpose of the TRC is often to be able to reconcile populations after conflicts, and usually work with TJ relatively shortly after major human rights violations have occurred; they must be understood as a peacebuilding and conflict prevention measure (Seils 2017: 2f). There is a tendency in different parts of the world to discuss historical injustices because there is an idea that states should take moral responsibility for their past actions (Andersen 2017: 13).

Sara Ahmed has used Australia's official apology to The Stolen Generations in 2008 as a case study. Ahmed refers to Elazar Barkan when she claims that a new civilization, a form of formal courtesy, has emerged in international politics. By this she signifies a new public morality, a growing political willingness, and at times eagerness to confess and apologize for one's historical sake (Ahmed 2004: 113, Barkan 2000: xxviii). In Scandinavia, the Norwegian king in 1997 apologized for the Norwegianization of the Sami. Similarly, in 1998 there was an apology in Sweden for the colonization of Sápmi, and in 1999 the Danish and Greenlandic governments issued an apology for the forced relocation of Inughuit in connection with the construction of Thule Air Base. However, reconciliation commissions were first set up in Scandinavia after the Canadian TRC model. That TJ is used in previously colonized countries that are today stable and democratic is thus a younger development. In relation to Greenland, the ‘transition’ lies in the fact that according to the Self-Government Act of 2009, Greenland was given the opportunity to become an independent country, and thus had entered a “transitional phase” (Andersen 2019: 215). Reconciliation commissions, TJ and Restorative Justice (RJ) have in common that all these initiatives are about seeking a form of ‘justice solution’ after historical abuses.

Although GRC has been inspired by reconciliation commissions of other countries, it differs from them in some important aspects. GRC's work has thus been characterized by the fact that it was an internal process in which perpetrators and victims could not be unambiguously identified. Therefore, neither compensation nor apologies were the focus of the GRC's work, especially in the beginning. GRC was broader-minded and focused on a general historical awareness. Another difference from other TRC’s are the GRC’s emphasis on keeping the informants and their stories anonymous, which could have affected the interest and understanding of their work, both from the public and the politicians.

Due to its broad format in terms of content and its focus on internal reconciliation, GRC is more similar to understandings of Restorative Justice, where the 'victims' are in focus. The GRC did not try to pass judgment or identify a perpetrator for the problems faced. It did not seek to get redress but tried to find ways to internally process historical events and their aftermath. GRC can thus be seen as an active choice to take ownership of the past, present and future, as the title of the final report shows: ”We understand the past. We take responsibility for the present. We work together for a better future.”


GRC and mental decolonization

Another focus on my thesis was how the recommendations could be read through ‘postcolonial lenses’ - specifically through theories of mental decolonization. The GRC concluded that the experiences and challenges faced by the Greenlandic people must be understood as consequences of colonization. My study shows that the information collected and the recommendations from the GRC was not specific to the Greenlandic situation, but that other countries undergoing (mental) decolonization come up with similar explanations and solution proposal - a realization that in a Greenland-Denmark context is still often overlooked and therefore important to articulate.

 Significantly, even though the GRC was founded on the idea of a need to process the consequences of Danish colonization, and the report documented the evidence, the GRC only managed to treat 'symptoms' and not the root of the problems because it was an internal process. The report does not comment on the asymmetric relationship with Denmark and how it affects the Greenlandic population today. Ngugi wa Thiong'o writes: "If we are to do anything about our individual and collective being today, then we have to coldly and consciously look at what imperialism has been doing to us and our view of ourselves in the universe" (Ngugi 1986 : 88). With the coalition’s goal to “create a distance from the colonization of our country” it literally seems as if GRC has distanced itself from the colonization as a significant factor in Dano-Greenlandic relations. But, as Astrid Nonbo Andersen has observed, Denmark is still “lurking in the background” throughout the work of the Reconciliation Commission (Andersen 2019).

The public debate around GRC

Since the idea of a GRC was aired, the public debate around it focused mostly on the relationship between Greenland and Denmark and on the former Prime Minister, Aleqa Hammond (hereinafter: AH). There was a discursive linking of the person AH and GRC, which led to a critical reception of the reconciliation project itself. Another focus was how “young Greenlanders opinions” were used as an argument against a reconciliation commission in Greenland, even though there was not much evidence of a resistance. One of the GRC’s most persistent criticisms is the economic aspect, where critics saw the funding of GRC as a 'waste of money'. Even after the GRC's work is completed, the GRC is still used as a reference point for something that takes resources away from the social department.

Another focus has been the mentioning of a public apology. Discussing this issue was not really GRC’s primary purpose, but it was nevertheless included in the recommendations. Another recurring theme was the importance of writing ‘our own history’, which was also often mentioned in GRC’s own statements and publications. There was also an association of GRC with the issue of independence, either in that GRC was seen as a necessary step towards independence or as an obstacle, but predominantly there was a desire that the reconciliation process would pave the way for equal cooperation with Denmark.

The overall result from the discourse analysis shows how the media has affected the discourse around the GRC. It became obvious that journalists, debaters, people with higher education (both in Greenland and Denmark) and politicians were dominating the narrative around GRC in the media. That resulted in a lack of perspectives and representations other than what can be called ‘the elite’ that most often was not aware or felt affected by the consequences of Danification. For example, there was a lack of opinion pieces or interviews with those that only spoke Greenlandic, or with people that lived outside of Nuuk and the experiences and opinions of the younger generation. This situation can be seen as having affected the discourse around the GRC and therefore caused predominantly disinterest in the process of reconciliation as seen through the lack of interest from politicians.

Since the idea of a reconciliation commission in Greenland was presented for the first time, there have been no significant discourse changes, and the knowledge about the GRC and its recommendations is still limited. This may change in the future, after the latest debate around the commemoration of Hans Egede (Fuglsang Holm 2021) showed that the topics the GRC worked on are still relevant and are increasingly being articulated by a younger generation.


GRC in relation to the debate around the statue of Hans Egede

In the summer of 2020, on the night before Greenland’s National Day, another wave of public debate arose when the statue of a Norwegian-Danish missionary, Hans Egede, was painted on in red and the word ‘decolonize’ written on it, including paintings of traditional Inuit tattoos. In short, the action paved a way for a conversation, filled with controversy, and the Sermersooq municipality ended up creating a vote on whether to keep the statue in its place or if it should be removed. Most people voted to keep it in its place, but by looking at the debate, it was interesting to see, how the discourse was similar to the debate around GRC. Both touched upon the consequences of Danish colonization, but with the difference, that the 2020 debate was talking more openly and direct about ‘systemic racism’ and injustice. Mostly the younger generation spoke their minds through social media and expanded the discourse around the colonial-relation between Denmark and Greenland. The action was inspired by international events, this time by a larger global justice movement, Black Lives Matter, where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Color) came forward addressing issues faced today. Nuuk entered a global wave of anti-racist and anti-colonial activism. The main difference between the GRC- and 2020-debates lies in the fact that the GRC-debate started and ended as an official initiative financed by the Naalakkersuisut (Government of Greenland). On the other hand, the 2020-debate, was started by public initiatives. There was also a difference in who engaged in the debates: while it was mainly the older generation who participated in GRC's work, the 2020-debate generally was carried on by the younger generation. The latter debate included the whole history of Danish colonization until today’s experiences of discrimination, where the younger generation did not hesitate to share experiences of and opinions about racism and colonialism.


The study of the GRC showed the complexity of the Greenland-Denmark situation today. Even though it was an internal process, Danish influence often came up because of the colonial history and the relationship today, as Greenland still forms part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The recommendations did not make it to the political agenda after 2017, but some of the main ideas were explored in a newer debate, where a group of committed Greenlanders addressed the problematics of the colonial situation. The thesis concludes that the GRC can be seen as part of a larger and more complex process of mental decolonization in Greenland, and that the topic of reconciliation - in one way or another - will keep emerging until there comes a generation that no longer will carry the consequences of colonization.

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Senest opdateret 25. november 2021