Second apology likely for Denmark’s Greenland experiment gone wrong | Polarjournal
The 2010 film “The Experiment”, based on a 1998 book that brought the fates of the children to light, follows their lives after their return to Greenland. Image: Nimbus Film

Mette Frederiksen, the Danish PM, has already apologised once to Greenland’s “experiment” children. In January 2020, Ms Frederiksen apologised in writing for her country’s 1951 effort to turn a group of 22 Greenlandic children into Danish-speaking, westernised role models for their country as it began to modernise. Before long, she may be repeating those words, but, this time, it will be in person.

In comments made to the Folketing, the national assembly, last week, Ms Frederiksen said she was prepared to “physically reiterate” the apology. No date has been set, but she acknowledged that it would be best to travel to Greenland to meet with the six living victims of what she has described as an “unfair and heartless” social experiment.  

The victims and those who had pushed for an apology on their behalf expressed their gratitude for the original gesture, but critics found it lacked the same weight as an apology Ms Frederiksen had delivered in person a year earlier to a group of Danish men of about the same age who had been abused in orphanages.

In 1951, twenty-two Greenlandic children were taken from their families and brought to Denmark to learn to think and act like Danes. The aim: form a new type of Greenlandic elite that could lead the country. The experiment failed and the children found themselves as outsiders in Greenland and Denmark. The consequences were substance abuse, suicide and premature deaths. Image: Michael Wenger

Meeting with the victims on their home turf is a sign that Ms Frederiksen takes the transgressions equally seriously, but some advocates still see a sign of unequal treatment: the Danish men received compensation for their ordeal in an out of court settlement, yet the Greenlandic victims are being told they must file a lawsuit if they want to make claims for theirs.

Still, the offer of a second apology and the possibility of compensation shows that Denmark no longer considers the matter “a closed chapter”, as one former PM put it in refusing to take the matter up. Another past explanation for not to apologising was because the experiment, at the time, was deemed to be in Greenland’s best interests.

Ms Frederiksen’s change of position came in 2019, when she indicated that she was prepared to admit to “children who were forced to be Danish” that they had been part of a failed experiment that had had disastrous personal consequences.

Danish PM Mette Frederiksen (at right, pictured with Greenlandic premier Mute B Egede) is reappraising a chapter in Danish history at a time when its former colony is becoming increasingly self-assured. Image: News Øresund via Wiki Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

A 2020 report published in connection with the apology concluded that while the aim of sending the children, who were chosen, in part, for their intellectual ability, to Denmark to learn Danish had indeed been to give them “a good life” the outcome had been the opposite: “loneliness; a feeling of being different and rootless; and a lost, divided and uncertain identity”.

Six of the children were adopted by their Danish host families. The 16 who returned to Greenland spent the rest of their childhoods living at a specially built orphanage where it was not permitted to speak Greenlandic.

Greenlandic children have been victims of abuse, both at home and in orphanages, schools and other institutions. Image:

Although the report found that each of the participants suffered later in life in their own individual way, it identified some similarities: most of those who returned to Greenland left again; many became substance abusers and developed mental issues; half died before the age of 70.

“In general,” the 2020 report said, “it is fairly obvious that most of the 22 struggled their entire lives with deep social and personal problems.” The participants’ experiences, and in particular their loss of their ability to speak Greenlandic, created what the report called a sense of “double homelessness”.

“When they lost their Greenlandic, they lost their bond to the Greenlandic society in which they lived, and the children they interacted with in particular reacted by insulting or teasing them. Later in life, they still found that they were not viewed as ‘real Greenlanders’ by their compatriots. In Denmark and in Greenland, their appearance suggested they were Greenlandic, but they were rejected as Greenlandic because they didn’t speak the language.”

Kevin McGwin is a journalist who has been writing about Greenland and the Arctic since 2006. Between 2013 and 2017, he was editor of The Arctic Journal. His latest project, The Rasmussen, continues in the spirit of The Arctic Journal, offering “regional news with a global perspective.” In addition, he regularly writes articles for Arctic Today, occasionally contributes to the Greenlandic weekly newspapers Sermitsiaq AG and has written for a variety of other websites related to the Arctic.

Website: The Rasmussen

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