Conflict Alerts # 490, 16 March 2022
In the news
On 9 March, Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen apologized to the victims of a social experiment in the 1950s wherein 22 Inuit children were separated from their families and taken to Denmark to “re-educate” and integrate them into the Danish society.
On the same day, the PM met with six survivors; The Guardian quoted Frederiksen: “What you were subjected to was terrible. It was inhumane. It was unfair. And it was heartless…We can take responsibility and do the only thing that is fair, in my eyes: to say sorry to you for what happened.” CTV News quoted Greenland Prime Minister Mute Egede: “This is part of our common history … The truth has emerged and it is a truth which hurts to look back on.”
On 9 March, CTV News quoted one of the survivors: "Our parents said yes to the trip but were hardly aware of what they agreed to."
Issues at large
First, the “little Danes” experiment. In 1951, 22 Inuit children aged roughly between five and nine were forcefully taken from their families in Greenland for “re-education” towards becoming model Danish citizens. Greenland was a Danish colony; the “re-education” included cutting ties with their roots, culture, and language. The Danish justified the experiment stating Greenland needed to address its poverty and low living standards. The trained little Danes were expected to return to Greenland and modernize the population. When the children returned to Greenland after a year, they lived in an orphanage and were not allowed to speak their language. However, the Greenlandic population perceived them as strangers, and several children returned to Denmark after growing up; CNN reports that many of them were trapped into substance abuse and many suffered mental illnesses, leaving only six survivors.
Second, the idea of re-education. The little Danes experiment was carried out with an assumption that the Danish were superior to their colonies. This sentiment is not unique to the Danish; several colonial powers, including the British, French and Belgians, employed similar tactics in their colonies in South Asia, Africa and so on. Recently, Canada’s announcement of monetary compensation to indigenous communities threw light on the similar plight of indigenous children who were separated from their families in the 1800s to 1900s to westernize them through education in boarding schools.
Third, the failure of the experiments. The experiments aimed at integration or assimilation did not produce the expected results. Several survivors across communities believe that they were subjected to a loss of identity and cultural genocide. Many of the experiments were carried out through threats, abuse and punishing.
Fourth, the apology. Denmark is among several other countries that are now revisiting their colonial past and apologizing to their victims. In recent times, France, Germany, Belgium, have all issued similar apologies to their erstwhile colonies.
The apology of Denmark signifies the acknowledgement of the colonial power’s dark past. While the apology may not change the lives of the survivors, it signifies efforts of the governments to reconcile with those who were wronged during the colonial past.