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Greenland’s new government wants to focus on reconciliation and forgiveness with its old colonial power Denmark

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Greenland’s new leader inspired by Mandela

Greenland politics is literally on the move after the 12 March elections. Boxes, lever arch files and personal belongings are strewn around corridors of the devolved government in the centre of Nuuk, while newly elected members move into their new offices, and meeting rooms are changing owners.

Apr 16, 2013 | Text: Mads Dollerup-Scheibel, photo: Jacob Ehrbahn NTB Scanpix

Because of the temporary mess leading up to the inaugural meeting of Greenland’s parliament Inatsisartut on Friday 5 April it takes a bit of time to find the country’s first lady, Aleqa Hammon, in the hallway.

She has no office at the moment, but we manage to find a spare sofa so we can carry out the interview in relative peace. 

Aleqa Hammond has written herself into Greenland's history in several ways. She got a record 6,818 personal votes, and she is Greenland’s first female Prime Minister.

These days she is about to get used to this new reality. 

“Voters are expecting a lot from me, and that makes me very humble. And I know a lot of responsibility comes with the backing I have got,” says Aleqa Hammond, who is also aware of the significance of being Greenland’s first female head of government. 

“Female members of parliament have become commonplace. And we are not fighting to achieve political equality with men. We have got it. And now a woman has also got the highest political position. The people have spoken: we are ready for a female leader. For that I am honoured,” says Aleqa Hammond.

More equality

The new government coalition, which in addition to Aleqa Hammond’s social democrat Siumut party comprises the centre right Atassut and the new, nationalist Partii Inuit (the people’s party), was ready just before Easter. 

The main political issues right now are the classical social democratic virtues of the Nordic welfare state: creating more jobs, not least in smaller communities. Trade unions must be given the right to negotiate when major raw material projects are being developed. And Greenlanders must not be shut out from jobs in future big industry projects, even though they mainly speak in their own native tongue.

Reconciliation

On a more principled level the South African freedom hero Nelson Mandela has indirectly left his fingerprints on the coalition agreement ‘Unified country - Unified people’. The coalition has made reconciliation with and forgiveness for the old colonial power Denmark central to its political programme. 

This is directly inspired by the South African process which started in 1994 as the much hated Apartheid rule was disbanded. 

Aleqa Hammond has been inspired by Nelson Mandela’s book ‘Conversations with myself’ from 2010, which she has just finished reading.

“The book made me aware of how important it is to put a people’s mental liberation process into words and action. And you need a government behind this process which understands why it is important,” explains Aleqa Hammond, who underlines the main point of this process.  

“This is not about a war between two countries or a liberation. It is about reconciliation, understanding and respect for the desires we have as a people. And it on this Mandela’s book has touched me deeply and given me inspiration for how we can do it,” says the Prime Minister.

Independence

She points out that a process of forgiveness and reconciliation is important when Greenland is about to tear away from Denmark and in the long run become a completely independent nationstate. Over time Greenland has gradually moved towards a more equal relationship with Denmark. First came home rule in 1979, in 2009 came autonomy. And when Greenland is ready, a range of government processes can be transferred from Denmark.  

But concrete changes which have been agreed are one thing. Something altogether different is the mental process.

“Much of our thinking and many of our actions in many ways mirror colonial times and their aftereffects. I have experienced this myself with my mother. She would never contemplate to contradict a Danish person, because it was they who decided everything. I grew up during home rule. The mental difference means I have no problem contradicting a Dane and to contradict the Danish government,” says Aleqa Hammond and points to the next step in the mental process. 

“We are talking about building a nation on a mental level. We will stand up as a people and demand what is rightfully ours. We will take responsibility for ourselves and for our families. And as politicians we will take responsibility for our country,” says Greenland’s political first lady.

The forced relocation

What should Denmark be forgiven for?

“There are many things. We share a history with Denmark which is not necessarily rosy. Take the forced relocation of the Thule population in 1953. That was demeaning and it sits deep in us. But many cannot put this into words. It is still tabu. Yet we shall dare to put words to it - also politically to Denmark. We have a shared history which puts commitments on both parties, and we shall be able to forgive each other for the negative actions,” says Aleqa Hammond, who also dismisses those who say the Thule issue has been properly dealt with - even though it was heard by Denmark’s Supreme Court 10 years ago, and the locals ended up with a small compensation.

“The issue was raised by an NGO, and not by the government. In this context it is important to have a government which acknowledges that there are certain questions which are important to raise,” says the Siumut politician. 

What must Denmark do in this process of reconciliation and forgiveness?

“We can strengthen the ties between Greenland and Denmark in a new way. Politically we need understanding and respect for our desire for increased autonomy and to use our own language. We could also have debates on Greenland’s and Denmark’s roles in The Danish Realm. We can do more to create trade agreements, cultural agreements and joint educational initiatives, for instance by using scholarships, just like we can strengthen cultural links with musical and cultural events, simply down to earth events where reconciliation can blossom and where we can strengthen our common understanding,” says Aleqa Hammond.

1 minute interview

Which book are you reading right now?

“I’m reading several at the moment, including books on the transmigration of souls and political biographies, including one on Kofi Annan. And I highly recommend Nelson Mandela’s book “Conversations with myself”. It made me cry several times. 

Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?

“The computer. I am a keen user of emails and Facebook. Electronic media are indispensable for reaching out to people.

What is your hidden talent?

“I’m good at domestic and creative stuff, be it conservation, baking or handiwork. I love haut cuisine and I’m a keen knitter.

As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

“I wanted to be a doctor and was actually accepted to medical school in Copenhagen, but then I ended up going to Canada instead.

Aleqa Hammond
  • Born in 1965 in the southern Greenland town of Narsaq, she grew up in Uummannaq, northern Greenland. Aged seven she lost her father while he was out hunting.
  • Studied at the Arctic College in Nunavut in Canada and is very internationally engaged. Speaks five languages (Greenlandic, English, Danish, , Inuktitut and German).
  • A member of Greenland’s parliament, Inatsisartut, representing the social democratic party Siumut since 2005.
  • A member of Greenland’s government Naalakkersuisut as Minister for Families and Legal Justice and as Minister for Finance and Foreign between 2005 and 2008.
  • Elected party leader for Siumut in 2009.
  • Before her parliamentary career she worked in the tourism industry, including as head of tourism in southern Greenland.