From Denmark to Greenland, A Long-Awaited Apology

Nuuk, Greenland [Photo by amanderson2 via Wikimedia Commons]

by Mingming Shi

On 8 December 2020, Mette Frederiksen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, formally apologised on behalf of her government for a so-called ‘cultural experiment’, (kulturmut tunngatillugu misiliineq in Greenlandic; kulturelt eksperiment in Danish), which took place starting in 1951. That year, twenty-two Greenlandic children were separated from their families in Greenland and sent to Denmark, where they started an unexpected phase of their lives, which led to consequences which spanned many decades afterwards. After over half a century, the victims, many of whom have already passed away, received a belated official apology from Denmark.

What Happened in 1951?

In 1951, two years before Greenland, a then-colony of the Danish Kingdom, was incorporated into the Realm by a unilateral decision from Copenhagen, twenty-two young Greenlandic children were chosen to participate in an ‘experiment’ by the Danish government. The plan was arranged specifically by the then-Greenland Department, a bureaucratic entity under the Government of Denmark, along with two non-governmental organisations, Save the Children Denmark and Red Cross Denmark. The initial plan only included local orphans, however, it ended up expanding to other kids such those with single parents. It was hoped that they would grow up to become a new cohort of Danish speaking elites in Greenlandic society when they returned to the island. The expected length of stay for the children would only be for one year and they would return to Greenland after that. The children were from several towns around the island, and they were between five to eight years old. 

Six were adopted by their foster families in Denmark, and the other sixteen were sent back to Greenland in 1952. However, the children who returned to Greenland were seconded to an orphanage in Nuuk and continued their lives there, and one of the major considerations was that the single parents were regarded as being unable to support the children who might probably have access to better conditions in the facility, and so their families could only visit them on Sundays.

A Long Way Before the Official Apology

An historical investigation into the affair was launched by both the Government of Greenland (Naalakkersuisut in Greenlandic) and the previous Danish government, the Third Cabinet of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (VLAK-regeringen in Danish) in 2019.

This case has been studied in Denmark in different ways. In 2010, Experiment (Eksperimentet in Danish), a Danish film based on the case, premiered in both Greenland and Denmark, and the movie was conceived in order to better educate the public about this incident. Ellen Hillingsø, one of the lead actors in the drama, had previously criticised then-PM Rasmussen for his unwillingness to publicly apologise for the forced removals. 

The two NGOs in question, Save the Children Denmark and the Red Cross Denmark, which were involved in the ‘experiment’, had previously apologised for their role in the deportations.

In 2019, before assuming office, Mette Frederiksen had promised an official apology, and she further confirmed that intention after she came to power, but stated that it would be delivered once the investigation report was completed. However, this delay was criticised, (especially in Greenland), as some argued that there was already sufficient proof for an official apology to be issued without waiting for the official report to be concluded. For example, both representatives of Greenland to the Danish Parliament, Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam and Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, had insisted that it was high time for the Danish government to apologise without a postponement.

On 8 December last year, an historical study was published by both the Greenlandic and Danish governments based on their joint effort of the investigation for the case. This document included the background of the ‘experiment’, the children who were selected and why and how, and their experiences as well as the consequences. 

On the same day, PM Frederiksen conveyed an apology on behalf of the Government of Denmark. In her speech (in Danish), she noted that, ‘we can take responsibility and apologise to those we should have taken care of but failed. I have sent a personal letter to the six living people, in which I, on behalf of Denmark, give them – and the others – an apology.’

As well, each of the six individuals received a letter of apology from the Prime Minister.

Kim Kielsen, the Prime Minister of Greenland has since praised the apology, stating that it represented a significant step in reconciling past grievances between Copenhagen and Nuuk.  

Indeed, opinions on how best to examine the colonial history of the Kingdom have varied within Danish society. On this specific case, Mai Mercado, a Danish politician as well as a former minister for Children and Social Affairs, commented a few years ago (in Danish), ‘Even though there were good intentions behind it, there is no doubt that the process has had major negative consequences for a number of the children. (…) It is not about placing blame, but about us all becoming wiser about our common history, so that together we can face the past. I think that is also important for the people who have been affected by this case.’

Juliane Henningsen, a then-Greenlandic representative in the Danish Parliament (Folketing in Danish), requested an official apology for the case when PM Rasmussen, who was in office in his first term in 2009. However, the Prime Minister rejected the call, as in his view, the relationship between Denmark and Greenland had evolved greatly in recent decades. He also responded that (in Danish), ‘at the same time we must state that the way of thinking both in Greenland and in Denmark was significantly different at that time. And we must understand it in such a way that the children’s stay was initiated on the basis of good intentions among the parties involved in Greenland and in Denmark.’ 

However, there are differing views on this period from some local scholars, such as Lars Jensen. In his article entitled Forsoningskommission og selvransagelse – ’never the twain shall meet’ (Reconciliation Commission and self-examination – ‘never the twain shall meet’) published in 2014, (even though not necessarily criticising Mai Mercado or Lars Løkke Rasmussen), he suggested that European powers in general were reluctant to fully face up to the aggression they condoned during the colonial era, and that there is still the tendency to use nuance to downplay the harm caused to colonised subjects.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen, June 2019 [Photo: News Øresund – Johan Wessman via Wikimedia Commons]

The Decades-long Consequences 

According to the report, the consequences of the ‘experiment’ for the children did not only manifest themselves during their childhood but also well into adulthood. When returning to Greenland and continuing their lives, the loss of their mother tongue simultaneously cut ties with their surrounding Greenlandic communities, and resulted in much peer pressure such as teasing from other kids. What was worse, they were not perceived as ‘real Greenlanders’ by many of their Greenlandic-speaking fellows.

Helene Thiesen, one of the youths involved in the case, had been fighting for years for an official apology by publishing her stories to the public both within the Kingdom of Denmark and abroad. As she explained to both local and international media, the children involved in the experiment were ultimately deprived of their family, language, home and roots.

Ironically, the result of the experiment did not satisfy the expectations of the organisers, as the majority of the children did not become the new bilingual ‘elites’ in the Greenlandic society as they were expected for. Today, when the official apology finally came, only six out of the twenty two children chosen for the ‘experiment’ were still alive, almost seven decades after the case happened.

A Variation between Greenland and Denmark? For better or worse?

The relationship between Denmark and Greenland appears to have become smoother after Mette Frederiksen took office. Compared to her predecessor, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, she has demonstrated a comparatively greater understanding of the rationales behind the independence movement of Greenland, and in 2019 had famously declined a maladroit proposal from then-US President Donald Trump to actual purchase the island, stressing that ‘Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Denmark. Greenland is Greenlandic’ (Grønland er ikke til salg. Grønland er ikke dansk. Grønland er grønlandsk. in Danish). 

The question now is whether this important apology will assist in addressing the considerable political rifts between Greenland and Denmark at a time when discussions about Greenlandic independence remain highly visible and often contentious. 

Mingming would like to thank Marc Lanteigne and Mikkel Schøler, CEO of Sikki, for their valuable assistance during the preparation of this article.