Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Home Rule on the World’s Coolest Island

It’s Greenland but also Kalaallit Nunaat. It’s part of Europe but also North America. It’s Inuit but also Danish. It’s dependent but also autonomous. It’s … complicated. But don’t worry, we’re here to clear things up. Here’s a handy primer on the intriguing political sovereignty of our favourite giant island.
Greenland flags public art nuuk

© Jen Derbach

Greenland's flag and the Kaassassuk public art sculpture in front of the Inatsisartut building, Nuuk

Let’s begin at the beginning. Greenland has always been a crossroads. Starting around 2,500 B.C.E., successive waves of Indigenous peoples came from across the Arctic—first the Saqqaq, who died out, then the so-called Independence I and II cultures, who also died out, and then the Dorsets, who stuck to the northwest coast.

Meanwhile, in 982 C.E., Norse homesteaders led by Erik the Red reached the southwest coast. To attract more Norse they called the land “green”—a sales pitch—and in time they had three settlements boasting 700 farms. By around 1300 C.E., Inuit had arrived in the northwest. The Dorset died out. The Little Ice Age happened. And in the early 1400s, Europe had fallen out of touch.

Guest walks to norse church reconstruction brattahlid greenland

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Brattahlid archaeological site, Qassiarsuk, Greenland

In 1721, they came back, in the form of Danish missionary Hans Egede. He arrived in Greenland expecting to preach to the long-lost Norsemen. But they had—you guessed it—died out. Instead there were only Inuit, now occupying the whole island. So Egede preached to them, and they became Danish subjects. For their “protection,” Denmark ran Greenland as a closed colony, monopolizing trade, denying foreign access, and making no provisions for representation. This continued for generations.

Interior qaqortoq church greenland

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Qaqortoq, Greenland

There were occasional disruptions. In 1867, United States officials, fresh off purchasing Alaska, proposed to buy Greenland. No dice. In 1931, Norway claimed Greenland’s northeast coast, but was rebuffed in international court. In 1940, the Nazis occupied Denmark and attacked Greenlandic weather stations, so the island became a temporary U.S. protectorate. And of course, in 2019, under Trump, the U.S. again proposed to buy Greenland. Still no dice.

Greenland wasn’t and isn’t for sale. Indeed, nowadays it isn’t something you can sell, any more than Canada could sell Québec or Australia could sell Tasmania. In 1953, Greenland had been “upgraded” from a colony to a Danish county. Then, in 1979, inspired by the fall of colonialism across Asia and Africa, Greenlanders voted overwhelmingly for autonomous home rule. They won their own parliament, the Inatsisartut in Nuuk, raised their own flag, named their island Kalaallit Nunaat (land of the Kalaallit people), and took charge of a range of domestic matters, including education, health, fisheries, and the environment. Flexing this newfound freedom, in 1985 they ditched the European Union—Kalexit, perhaps we could call it.

Staff onboard ocean endeavour presentation greenland governance

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Greenlanders Nive Nielsen (left) and Tupaarnaq Egede (right) provide engaging onboard learning about the topic of Greenland's sovereignty and governance.

In 2008, another popular referendum resulted in even mightier Greenlandic self-rule. Danish was dropped as an official language and the Inatsisartut assumed authority over almost all remaining political portfolios. They also agreed that Denmark will phase out its annual subsidies (at the time of this writing about US $600 million per year), paving the way toward economic self-sufficiency and, eventually, full sovereignty. For a while, there was talk of Greenlandic independence by 2021, the 300th anniversary of Egede’s arrival. But so far, the island’s financial hopes—pegged on the prospects of oil—have not panned out.

Sisimiut greenland

© Dennis Minty

Sismiut, Greenland

And what of Greenland’s relationship with Canada? It’s pretty tight, actually. After all, nearly the entire population of Greenland is on the west coast, facing Canada. Nuuk and Iqaluit are as close as Toronto is to Québec City. Greenlanders speak the same language as Inuit in Arctic Canada and even Alaska. And thanks to a nineteenth century migration, many northern Greenlanders and Baffin Islanders share family ties. It’s no wonder that, in 2013, a poll revealed that Greenlanders feel their top ally is not Denmark, but Canada.

Of course, there’s a pesky dispute between Canada and Greenland over Hans Island, but that’s mostly hype. The most commonly proposed solution is to draw a line down the middle, giving the two countries a shared land border. A land border with Greenland! Now that would be pretty great.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.

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