Global Human Rights Defence

Danish Apology to Greenlandic Inuit for Social Experiment Brings Back Memories of the Colonial Past
Inuit woman and boy in Greenland. Source: Anders Nord/Unsplash, 2018

Author: Margareta Ana Baksa

Department: Europe

On March 9th, 2022, at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen stood in front of a group of six Greenlandic Inuit and apologised. It was not an apology concerning a recent offence – in fact, it had been a long time coming. This group of Greenlandic Inuit are six of 22 unwilling and unknowing participants in a ‘social experiment’ Denmark conducted over 70 years ago. Their calls for an apology or compensation went unanswered for years, as they continued to struggle with the aftermath of these events.

Background

Denmark’s colonial era in Greenland started in the first half of the 18th century (Rud, 2017). In 1721, when a Lutheran priest organised a mission to Greenland  bringing Christianity to the descendants of the old Norse and established official trade routes between the island and the mainland (Rud, 2017). Upon arrival, the missionaries found that the old Norse were no longer present on the island, so they decided that the local Inuit population would be converted to Christianity instead, thus starting a 150 year period of trade and missionary work (Jensen, 2015; Bang Andersen, 2019).

The colonisers aimed to modernise the society in Greenland, while at the same time encouraging the use of traditional practices, especially in cases in which Denmark could reap the profits, such as with traditional hunting techniques (Rud, 2017). In the mid 19th century, after increased fears that colonialism had weakened Greenlandic tradition, local boards with elected Greenlanders were set up in the communities (Rud, 2017). These boards were meant to establish a social order in Greenland while also acting as the ‘eyes’ of the colonial authorities. As part of this ‘social order’, the colonisers aimed to create a Greenlandic elite – sending Greenlanders to Copenhagen for education as part of this practice (Terpstra, 2015; Rud, 2017). Concerns were voiced over this practice; on the one hand, educating Greenlanders was seen as an important aspect in the ‘civilising’ endeavour, while on the other hand, the colonial authorities were concerned that educating Greenlanders would lead to a disconnect from and loss of their traditions and culture (Rud, 2017). Therefore, the Greenlandic Inuit’s opportunities were limited compared to those of mainland Danes, to those choices that did not infringe on Danish paternalistic ‘cultural-preservation’ motives (Rud, 2017). 

With time and mounting anti-colonial pressure, Denmark let go of its colonies – it sold Ghana and territories in India to Great Britain and sold their colonies in the West Indies to the US (Jensen, 2015). Iceland became de facto independent in the early 20th century, and the Faroe Islands received home rule by the middle of the century (Jensen, 2015). However, Denmark held on to Greenland longer, and devised a plan to rapidly modernise Greenland to fully integrate it, instead of giving up the colony (Rud, 2017).

The experiment

As part of this ‘modernisation’ process, the Danish government, with the help of Save the Children and the Danish Red Cross, took 22 Greenlandic Inuit children from their families,[1] brought them to Copenhagen where they were placed with foster families. This was done with the purpose of educating them for one year – teaching them the Danish language and Danish values – so that they could be leaders in ‘modernising’ Greenland upon their return (Bunch Farver, 2010). A year later, six children remained in Denmark with their now adoptive families, while the other 16 were taken back to Greenland, not to their families but a children’s home in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital (Otzen, 2015). Even if the children would have been returned to their families, they had at that point already forgotten their language and could speak only Danish, so they would not have been able to communicate with their parents (Otzen, 2015). Barred from playing with Greenlandic children and from re-learning their language, the children were isolated within their homeland (Murray, 2022). The experiment was never evaluated by the authorities, and once the children were returned to Greenland the experiment was simply abandoned without explanation (Winther Poulsen, 2021). This social experiment was a plain violation of the rights of the child.

For instance, in the preamble of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is laid out that a child should grow up in a family environment, with happiness, love, and understanding. The children that were part of this experiment were robbed of such a childhood. Article 20(3) notes the importance of continuing to educate the child in its own cultural and linguistic background, even when the children are placed in care outside their own family. The children in this experiment were not allowed to do either, as both practising their language or learning about their culture was forbidden. Article 3 of the same Convention requires that all actions must be done in the best interest of the child, whether these actions be on private or public initiative. Even if it was argued that bringing the children to Denmark to educate them was in their best interest, the same could not be said for removing the children from their families, not allowing them to return to them after the year was over, and essentially abandoning them after uprooting them for the purposes of the experiment. These are only some of the rights of children not respected in this experiment, but as Secretary-General of the Danish branch of Save the children Mimi Jacobsen noted:

“When we look at what happened, it was a clear violation of children’s fundamental rights. There’s hardly a rule that hasn’t been broken here.” (Jacobsen in Otzen, 2015).

This had a disastrous effect on the children – removed from their families, strangers in their homeland, lost and uprooted. The majority were not able to find or keep jobs, leading to difficult economic circumstances that added to their hardships. Despite the initial plan of the experiment being to turn them into leaders of their community, the children were in the end on the margins of society. Underpinning all this were the psychological consequences the children suffered after the end of the experiment. The majority of the children died as young adults, some became alcoholics or lost their homes, one took their own life, the majority had deep psychological issues that scarred them for life (Hermann, 2019; Lund Jensen et al., 2020). Most of the 16 unwilling participants who have passed away since the experiment have died, as the survivors said, from sorrow (AFP, 2022).

Aftermath

Until the 1990s, long after Greenland officially became a part of Denmark, many did not even know that what they went through was a social experiment (Otzen, 2015). In 1996, a writer uncovered information on the experiment and notified the participants (Otzen, 2015). They received an apology from the Danish Red Cross in 1998, and an apology from Save the Children in 2009 – the Danish government was silent until 2020 (Otzen, 2015; Murray, 2022). Authorities in Greenland and members of the Social Democratic Party in Denmark demanded an official apology from the government in 2009, but without success (Finnsson, 2009). Furthermore, once the same party won in the elections in 2011, they remained silent despite their previous demands (Otzen, 2015).

With arguments that the past should remain in the past, the issue went largely unaddressed by the Danish government for years, until Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sent out an open letter of apology in 2020 (Murray, 2022). A request for compensation issued by the then remaining six survivors in 2021 was rejected, after which the survivors filed a lawsuit against the Danish state (Murray, 2022). The case did not go to court as the government changed their stance and agreed to pay the restitution: each of the six was granted 250.000 Danish kroner, equivalent to almost €34.000 (Winther Poulsen, 2021; Pedersen, 2022). The official apology given last week will be followed by another apology in the coming days when PM Frederiksen will travel to Greenland (Murray, 2022).

Conclusion

The case of this failed social experiment and the protracted wait for an official apology and restitution for the survivors is a stain on Denmark, a country that tends to present itself as progressive and believes in social justice, and presents its role in history as that of a benevolent coloniser (Rud, 2017; Jensen et al., 2017). Such absolution of responsibility when it comes to the negative consequences of Danish colonialism is perhaps best seen in the response of former Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen when initially approached about issuing an apology for the experiment:

“Denmark and Danes have nothing to feel shame over in relation to Greenland. On the contrary: Denmark has made a great effort to develop the Greenlandic society. We take pride in this effort and it could serve as a model for others.” (Rud, 2017).

The apology given by PM Mette Frederiksen is a step in the right direction towards reckoning with the darker sides of Danish colonial history. Until Denmark can confront the harm that was done at its hands and take accountability, it will not be able to rightfully claim the image of a progressive state. The six survivors have, in the meantime, finally had their pain acknowledged and have received their deserved restitution for the ‘heartless and inhumane’ social experiment they were put through in this dark chapter of Danish history (AFP, 2022).

References

AFP (2022, March 10). Denmark PM says sorry to Greenland Inuit taken for ‘heartless’ social experiment. The Guardian. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/10/denmark-pm-says-sorry-to-greenland-inuits-taken-for-heartless-social-experiment

Bunch Farver, M. (2010). I den bedste mening? [With the best intentions?]. Roskilde Universitet Institut for Kultur og Identitet. https://rucforsk.ruc.dk/ws/files/57667145/Speciale_Maria_Bunch_Farver.pdf

Finnsson, L. (2009, August 14). Greenland demands apology for Danish child experiments. Icenews. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.icenews.is/2009/08/14/greenland-demands-apology-for-danish-child-experiments/

Hermann, R. (2019, November 1). Als Dänemark den Grönland-Kindern die Zukunft raubte [When Denmark stole the future of the Greenland-kids]. Neue Zurcher Zeitung. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.nzz.ch/international/als-daenemark-den-groenland-kindern-die-zukunft-raubte-ld.1512900?reduced=true

Jensen, L. (2015). Postcolonial Denmark: Beyond the Rot of Colonialism?. Postcolonial Studies, 18:4, 440-452. DOI: 10.1080/13688790.2015.1191989

Jensen, T. G., Weibel, K., Vitus, K. (2017). ‘There is no racism here’: public discourses on racism, immigrants and integration in Denmark. Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 51, No. 1, 51–68. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0031322X.2016.1270844

Lund Jensen, E., Thorleifsen, D., Andersen Nexø, S. (2020). Historisk udredning om de 22 grønlandske børn, der blev sendt til Danmark i 1951 [Historical report on the 22 Greenlandic children sent to Denmark in 1951]. Ministry of Culture Denmark. Retrieved March 16, 2022, from  https://pure.kb.dk/en/publications/historisk-udredning-om-de-22-gr%C3%B8nlandske-b%C3%B8rn-der-blev-sendt-til-

Mørck, A. H. (2020, December 8). Derfor gik eksperimentet med de grønlandske børn galt [Thus the experiment with the Greenlandic children went wrong]. TV2. Retrieved March 16, 2022, from https://nyheder.tv2.dk/samfund/2020-12-08-derfor-gik-eksperimentet-med-de-groenlandske-boern-galt

Murray, A. (2022, March 10). Denmark says sorry to children of failed experiment. BBC. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60646898

Otzen, E. (2015, June 10). The children taken from home for a social experiment. BBC. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from
https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33060450

Pedersen, S. H. (2022, March 2). Eksperiment børnenes advokat: Beløbet er tårnhøjt, men forløbet har været mærkeligt [Experiment children’s lawyer: The amount is very high, but the process has been strange]. KNR. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from  https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/eksperimentb%C3%B8rnenes-advokat-bel%C3%B8bet-er-t%C3%A5rnh%C3%B8jt-men-forl%C3%B8bet-har-v%C3%A6ret-m%C3%A6rkeligt

Rud, S. (2017). Colonialism in Greenland: Tradition, Governance and Legacy. Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-46158-8

Terpstra, T. K. (2015). Inuit outside the Arctic: Migration, identity and perceptions. University of Groningen. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt20d870j

Thór, J. T. (2000). Why was Greenland ‘lost’?. Scandinavian Economic History Review, vol. 48. https://doi.org/10.1080/03585522.2000.10419822

United Nations. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Treaty Series, 1577, 3.

Winther Poulsen, R. (2021, December 20). Greenlanders shipped to Denmark as children seek compensation. Al Jazeera. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/20/greenlanders-shipped-to-denmark-as-children-seek-compensation

[1] This was agreed with the parents, although they were somewhat pressured to give up their children (Otzen, 2015). Six of the children were orphans (Mørck, 2020).

  1. [1] This was agreed with the parents, although they were somewhat pressured to give up their children (Otzen, 2015). Six of the children were orphans (Mørck, 2020).

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