By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Gerald Zinnecker.

Probably the last thing you would have thought of this morning was ‘how are things in Greenland?’ and you’re forgiven, dear reader for your indifference, but listen up: our country would be deeply remiss to continue to ignore the island’s politics and its potential.

If you don’t believe me, believe Greenland. You see, if I asked you which country considers Canada its top ally and you answered the US, you’d be wrong: Americans say it’s the UK when polled – nor is the answer the UK (the love-in with the US is well requited.) It’s Greenland – despite not really receiving much attention at all from Canada – that considers us their top ally. Just let that soak in a bit: Greenland, top ally, Greenland. The telephone survey in question (circa 2013) had experts totally floored when a plurality of Greenlanders (31%) saw Canada, not Denmark, as their top ally despite all of the political cooperation and the close role that Denmark has played in Greenland; the latter being a ‘constituent country’ of the former’s sovereign realm. That trend is set to grow too, given the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to see Canada as its country’s top ally.

Naturally, if Greenland considers Canada important to them, it’s only Canadian of us to return the favour and take a moment to reflect on Greenland.

Perhaps it makes sense for Greenland to see itself so close to Canada, because it is – or at least in a geographic sense. In a perfect world, devoid of the colonial politics that separated Greenland from North American politics, Greenland and Canada would be as close as the neighbors we are. And in another freak of geography: the population of Greenland is also isolated mostly to the western half, facing Canada, rather than Europe, due to the ice sheets covering the majority of the island.

Whereas Copenhagen is more than two thousand miles away: at its closest point, Canada isn’t just close to Greenland, it’s a spit’s throw away from Greenland. Only 25 km separates us at the Nares Strait, which, when you think about it, isn’t all that much more than the 18 km that separates Newfoundland from the mainland at its closest point. That closest point between Greenland and Canada appears near the northern most point of the Baffin Bay, where Ellesmere Island (Nunavut, Canada) and Greenland come close to gently kunik’ing one another. To the south, Iqaluit and Nuuk, the capitals of Nunavut and Greenland respectively, are only about 800 km apart which is comparable to the distance between, say, Toronto and Quebec City or Edmonton and Regina.


Culturally and ethnolinguistically, Greenland and Canada, or more specifically, Nunavut, are close and resemble each other in ways with which Denmark can’t compete. For starters, Inuit account for 85-90% of Greenland’s population, rather than Greenlander Danes, and the Inuit in question speak Greenlandic, which is closely related to the Inuit languages such as Inuktitut. As a result of this shared heritage and their remote places in the North, Greenland’s Inuit have a lot in common with Nunavut’s Inuit: a colonial past that’s overcome assimilation policies, a present suicide and drugs epidemic, rising concerns of climate change, and the hopes for achieving greater autonomy from their host countries. It’s also not uncommon for there to be strong familial ties crossing borders between the two regions in the High Arctic; although travel has been restricted in the past since 9/11 due to new border regulations and a lack of access to passport materials.

Politically, Greenland is a ‘self-governing dependency’ but Denmark still maintains control of Greenland’s foreign affairs – a remnant of its colonial history. The path towards Greenland independence began in 1979 when Greenlanders overwhelming voted in a referendum for ‘home rule’ over Greenland’s internal affairs: culture, education, health, and the environment, which laid the groundwork for a process of ‘Greenlandization,’ to remake Greenland’s institutions in its society’s image rather than observing Danish language, customs and culture. A more recent referendum for self-government in 2008 intensified that push for independence, securing greater control over Greenland’s justice system in the process, reducing the flow of subsidies and oil revenue between Denmark and Greenland, and establishing Greenlandic as the island’s official language.

More pretty pictures of Greenland. (Photo: Gerald Zinnecker.)

Essentially all of the political parties in Greenland’s legislature agree that complete independence is a worthy goal for Greenland but disagree whether independence should be the first priority of the country or whether achieving economic stability, growth and independence should take precedence first. The ruling party, Siumut is a centre-left social democratic party which favours independence, while the opposition, Inuit Ataqatigiit (Inuit Brotherhood) is more left-wing, more nationalist, and more vocal about its hopes for an independent Greenland. Everyone agrees that the status quo, the current arrangement between Denmark and Greenland, will not last anymore than, depending on who you ask, ten to thirty years, which has left the country in a pinch to answer the tough questions about Greenland sovereignty: what exactly, when and most brain-addling of all, how.

That’s where Canada fits in with this conversation: without Danish subsidies, Greenland needs some new friends to achieve a financially sustainable future.

Canada is the obvious alternative to closer relations (if not rejoining altogether) with the European Union (EU), the latter of which has been mused before by Greenlanders. Thus it’s as simple as a foreign policy love triangle. We have to prove to Greenland their future is with us, not the EU. The ruling party has every right to be euroskeptic, given the EU’s European cultural agenda and its restrictive regional integration. Whether we’re talking about Greenland as an independent ally, a dependent or as a territory even, Canada has the political flexibility to satisfy more of Greenland’s various (often contradicting) hopes from its allies while assuaging concerns they have with the alternatives. Our North is more Inuit than European but we’re more egalitarian than nationalist, we’re social democratic but practice market economics, we share common ground on Arctic and Inuit issues, aboriginal reconciliation, and climate change and we boast a federal system that maintains a (variably) friendly host of provinces under a redistributive framework – our relationships with Europe and America are complex but autonomous. We are the ‘third’ option, the lifeline for a post-Denmark Greenland.

But there could be challenges to overcome.

First, the stationing of US missile defense in Greenland is unpopular among the country’s left and we could face pressure from Greenland to act as an intervening party to support their interests over America’s anti-missile defense system. Canada would have to walk a fine line between protecting its own national defense and showing sympathy to Greenland. America, after all, has a bad reputation for nuclear security in Greenland: for one thing, they infamously lost and never recovered a hydrogen bomb off the coast of the Thule Air Base in 1968 (weapons that were being stored in Greenland without permission from Denmark); worse still, the US abandoned its secret nuclear outpost nearby, Camp Century, believing its radioactive waste would be “entombed” in the Greenland ice sheets now melting as a result of climate change. Whoops.

Also problematic for Canada though is that Greenland independence could stir hopes for Quebec nationalists, or more likely, support for an independent Greenland could become radioactive: touch it and you own it – Denmark’s acquiescence to a Greenland’s sovereignty referendum, Greenland’s push for independence, the Inuit nationalism of the Brotherhood – without carefully managing the approach taken to an independent Greenland, the transition could be a Pandora’s Box of problems for the federal government if it were forced to admit by action (if not in words) it would honour a 50+1% referendum, let alone a nationalist one. Canada would have to tread carefully, distinguishing the two cases from one another: independence is far more popular in Greenland than Quebec and their situation is a product of colonialism from a faraway European power.

The Prime Minister visits near Iqaluit, Nunavut. October 10, 2015. (Centre: Paul Chiasson, CP; Top-Right: Steve Ducharme.)

However, the greatest challenge that Canada would face would be from Denmark, first and foremost. But challenging Denmark in this manner, a charm offence with Greenland, would strike a far harder punch into Denmark’s jaw than any holdover of the silliness pursued by the Harper administration; committing to childish antics, fighting over Hans Island and the Lomonosov Ridge, antagonized Denmark without a reward and it failed to consider the bigger picture: there may be no Danes to have pissing contests with in the Arctic region soon enough. A softer approach that considers the wider geopolitics at play and broadens Canada’s foreign policy with a new Inuit-Nordic dimension would set Trudeau’s administration apart in the North from its predecessors by building new relations with our neighbors, supporting them even – not needlessly antagonizing their allies. A careful, culturally-sensitive exercise of soft power rather than a tactless display of hard power.

Such an approach could start with a first for us: a state visit by the prime minister to our neighbors in the North. A visit to Greenland by Trudeau, with an entourage of Nunavut officials in tow, could be firmly framed within the priorities of his administration: aboriginal affairs, climate change and global security. He could offer support and discuss, if appropriate, the newly-launched Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy and what his administration hopes to accomplish at home for environmental and Inuit affairs.

Trudeau would be a bright face to represent Canada and would likely make a positive impact through a simple outreach. The hope would be such a visit could promote enthusiasm for greater Nunavut-Greenland cooperation, reducing travel barriers and restrictions and ultimately, new trade arrangements for a country whose economy is still extremely isolated to its trade with Denmark. The visit would also expose Canadians watching at home to Greenland and begin a long process of familiarization.

Greenland as a partner has a lot of potential for us; as climate change melts the ice sheets and reveals a new world awaiting underneath, they’ve been discovering new hydrocarbon reserves and exotic and precious metals. But even more important to Canada, beyond their economic significance, is the fact they’re our neighbors. Denmark may not be up there in Baffin Bay forever, but Greenland intends to be and so do we. So we need to start acting like it and to do that, we must stop thinking of them as divorced from our continent, especially when there’s no such physiographical distinction. The first step towards a stronger future together is reimagining them as our neighbors and as our family.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes



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