ICC president welcomes Danish apology for Thule relocation
ICC President Aqqaluk Lynge is pleased with Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s apology to the relocated Inuit of Thule.
IQALUIT — September 2 will stand as a landmark day for Aqqaluk Lynge, the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.
That’s when Lynge received an apology from Poul Nyrup-Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, for the relocation of some 100 residents of Uummannaq in May of1953 to make way for the U.S. air force base at Thule.
“On behalf of the Danish state I apologize to the Inuit, the population of Thule, and to the whole population of Greenland for the way the decision about the move was taken and carried out,” Nyrup Rasmussen said in a written statement.
Rasmussen uttered the word that he and many other Greenlanders have been waiting to hear for years: “utatserqatserpunga.”
“For the first time, we have a prime minister of Denmark who is apologizing in our Greenlandic language,” said Lynge. “It’s very important to us.”
In the spring of 1953, Danish authorities informed 30 families that they would have to abandon their settlement and move 150 kilometers away from the top-secret military airbase at Thule.
“They had to move their belongings and families by dog sled, with no help at all,” said Lynge. The order coincided with the last months of Danish colonial rule.
Among those displaced were babies and old people. They slept in tents throughout the damp and cold summer, at the site of the new settlement.
“We are not used to staying in tents,” said Lynge. “This is the high arctic. It’s the harshest climate on earth.”
The first houses that would eventually constitute the new settlement of Qaanaaq didn’t go up until September, 1953.
Over the years, however, the move was not a forgotten issue. In 1960, Qaanaaq’s municipal council tried to launch a court case, but this effort didn’t go far.
In fact, Lynge said, the entire legal file was eventually misplaced.
“It disappeared,” he said. “That shows how hard it was to trace the whole story.”
More than 20 years later, in 1987, a joint Danish-Greenlandic commission took another look at the Thule relocation.
“That ended with a report in 1994, saying it was not a forced relocation,” said Lynge. “That was the first official conclusion.”
In 1996 residents of Qaanaaq then formed their own committee, called “Hengetaq 53,” the 1953 exiles.
They asked the Inuit Circumpolar Conference for help. Shortly thereafter, in December 1997, the ICC launched a new court case, argued by one of Denmark’s top constitutional lawyers.
After months of hearings and a visit to Qaanaaq to interview the survivors of the relocation, the appeal court’s justices finally announced their decision on August 20.
“They decided that it was a forced relocation,” Lynge said .
The court’s judgement provided 63 individuals with financial compensation equivalent to three and five thousand Canadian dollars each.
As well, it set up a collective fund worth about $100,000 Canadian for the 611 other plaintiffs who had supported the case against Denmark.
Two weeks later, the midday call that Lynge received from Prime Minister Rasmussen resolved the issue of the apology.
“He called me right after he had called the organization in Qaanaaq and gave me the news that now he was apologizing for the injustice of 1953,” said an elated Lynge, reached by Nunatsiaq News shortly after taking this call.
The only remaining issue to settle is the ownership of land that was expropriated and to whom hunting rights belong.
Lynge said he would be consulting with the community of Qanaaq and Hengetaq 53 to see if they wish to pursue a second court case.
“Even if we have home rule, we need to know exactly what kinds of territorial rights and hunting rights we have,” Lynge said.
French writer Jean Malaurie described the devastating psychological effect of the 153 Thule relocation was outlined in his book, The Last Kings of Thule.
Malaurie, who visited the region before and after the relocation, had this to say about how the Thule air force base affected those who lived in Uummannaq and then Qanaaq.
“Money, that prime agent of corruption, held sway everywhere. The younger hunters were now aware of how mediocre their material way of life was! Who was going to persuade them that this was not true! The second chapter in the history of Thule and of northern Greenland had now begin: Inuk, the man with the harpoon, was doomed.”
“We can’t rewrite history,” said Danish Prime Minister Nyrup Rasmussen. “But we can show our respect to this population and to all the people of Greenland.”