When she became the first female prime minister of Greenland in 2013, Aleqa Hammond received the highest number of popular votes in the nation’s history. Then-leader of the social-democrat Siumut party, she advocated for Greenland—which is currently a semi-autonomous state—to gain full independence from Denmark. Though she stepped down a year later due to an expense scandal, she went on to represent Greenland as a member of the Danish parliament. She continues to travel around the circumpolar world, with close ties to Inuit in Canada, Alaska and Russia. In March, soon after the Arctic Winter Games in Nuuk and Iqaluit wrapped up, we spoke with Hammond about self-government and her advice for Inuit around the circumpolar world.
When you travel to the different Arctic nations, what are the similarities you see among the people? They’re talking about the same issues. That could be the impact of climate change on our countries, it could be indigenous people’s rights, it could also be geopolitical issues. It could be heightening or enhancing the educational level in the Arctic. I also see very often that the acknowledgement and respect to the indigenous peoples of the Arctic are of great importance to us for the outside world to understand.
When I see my colleagues in the Arctic, the difference I often see is our political standing. Greenland has a full government, which the other Inuit countries do not have. They see Greenland as [setting the standard for] how to do things, because we don’t have models to lean on.
I think Greenland has been very strong in demanding its say and demanding its own integrity in this matter. Standing so strong in demanding our right to independence, our right to an independent economy, our right to be part of all political issues that have something to do with the Arctic—when you hear a Greenlandic voice in this sense, then the voices of Canadian, Alaskan, and Chukotkan Inuit are also being heard at some level. It has a very big symbolic importance to our fellow Inuit over there.
What is your relationship with Inuit in Canada? I am part of these people. My great-ancestors are also from there. They are also from Alaska, and they are from Chukotka, as the migration route of the Inuit is from the same places. That’s why I speak the same language as them. When I speak with Canadian Inuit, I understand what they’re saying without having to speak English. We have the same jokes. We have the same traditional festivities. We have the same mentality. I have more in common with Canadian Inuit than I have with any people around the world.
Too bad that even though physically we are very close to each other, with regards to infrastructure, we are far away from each other. We don’t have [direct] flights between Nunavut and Greenland. I think it’s important that we have the political will to [reopen this route] between Nunavut and Greenland. It’s a question of trading experiences, having greater connections with each other on an educational level, on a tourism level, and also on a trade level.
"As a woman, I’d like to enhance our men, for them to be taking more part in our political, cultural and traditional modern lifestyle today, where men are just as strong as women. Because if you see the suicide rates, at least in Greenland, but also in other Inuit countries, you see males are committing suicide in our nations [at much higher rates] than females."
You studied at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit from 1989 to 1991. What was your experience? I was very young. I’m still very young! But I was younger, and I noticed that a lot of my fellow students over there, the same age as me, already had small children. I noticed also that they were studying and having children at the same time. And I noticed also that there were very few attending classes. The level of interest of getting an education there was at another level as we [Greenlanders] were.
As I was attending EATEP, the Eastern Arctic Teachers Education Program, we were only four students, and that was even a good year. I noticed back then already that we were graduating more than 50 new teachers in Greenland every year for many years. Nunavut was graduating three or four a year. I noticed that the level has not risen that much since.
If society is to gain greater autonomy, if a society is to create a stronger Inuit culture and traditions as a country, teachers are very important—the ability to teach your own children your own language, about your own society, your country, your traditions, and to be able to teach your own perception of what you are, as a nation, as a people. I was surprised to see that this education program was not being prioritized more [in Nunavut] on the political level and among the population to make it attractive and important.
[Editor’s note: Now called the Nunavut Teacher’s Education Program, the education stream has become an increasingly popular option. The program expanded in 1994 to deliver a bachelor of education degree and has produced close to 500 graduates since its 1974 inception, 200 of which have the bachelor’s degree.]
What do you see for the future of Inuit in the Arctic? I see a region where the Inuit voice is very strong. I see a region where respect to Inuit government is much stronger than it is now. I see an Arctic that is strengthening its approach to the outside world. Because now we are dealing with those that are approaching us, and I think that in the future to come, [Inuit will be] approaching the outside based on our terms and based on our agenda. That requires that we are more courageous than we are today.
When we talk about our resources, renewable and non-renewable, very often we see that outside the Arctic, nations are talking about the resources either to be exploited or to be protected. But when we look at our own priorities for our resources, the fact is that our living conditions in the Arctic are very hard, and much harder than many other places around the world, and we don’t have that many options for economic growth. Our own possibilities for economic growth in our societies—where we need better housing, better jobs for people, better healthcare, better daycare, better pensions for elders and many other things we lack today—requires that we grow economically based on our own resources.
We do not have any other option. This is the way ahead to better economic growth. We can’t grow as a nation, as an economy, as a tradition, based on opportunities other countries are giving us. We have to grow as an economy based on our own opportunities.
It’s important that we have a land claim agreement in Nunavut, and Greenland has its own rights to its own riches underground. These are great powers gained by Inuit negotiations with both Denmark and the federal government of Canada. Transforming that [power] to actively change the economy of our countries requires a clear political signal on what we want, what kind of economy we want to see in our country in 15, 20 years from now.
Having this policy will at least send a very clear message to our people what kind of society they’re going to be getting for the next generation. The outside world will also have a very clear vision of what the Inuit people want, and that we are forming our own future based on our own priorities, based on our own terms, and based on our own timeline.
Many young Inuit leaders are women. What does that signify to you? We women in the Arctic have never felt that we have been put aside by our men. On the contrary, our men have always been there for us, and they’ve said life would not have been possible to maintain in the Arctic if it wasn’t for the women and the willpower of the women. I still see that today in the modern world, in a time when we’re trying to think globally, but the same values and principles for Inuit-ness are still there: We are honouring and praising our women.
As a woman, I’d like to enhance our men, for them to be taking more part in our political, cultural and traditional modern lifestyle today, where men are just as strong as women. Because if you see the suicide rates, at least in Greenland, but also in other Inuit countries, you see males are committing suicide in our nations [at much higher rates] than females. That says a bit about adaptation to modern life. For women it’s easier than it is for men, and it requires us to be aware of what kinds of obstacles and hurdles they’re meeting on their way in our modern society. If we want our Inuit men to be as strong as we want them to be, it requires that we look at the transformation problems we are facing as a population.
How do you see people in different Arctic nations balancing that modern and traditional life? I think this is not only a question of creating new educational institutions in the region, I think it lies in the awareness of our own rights. If we are to create a strong nation, it’s not by creating new buildings or new facilities. It’s creating awareness of your own nation, in your own rights, and your own culture, and your own traditions, and to be strong in your own cultural perception of who you are as Inuit.
Never give up your language. Never give up the priorities your ancestors gave you. Never give them up for anything that comes from outside, because anything that comes from outside replaces that which, in the end, allowed you to survive in the harsh regions of the Arctic. It will weaken you.
Bear that in mind, and you can take whatever you can use, and leave anything you don’t need. It requires you to always be aware of your own rights, such as your right to your own language. Greenlandic is the only official language of this country. It’s a big power that we have that can be transformed to an even stronger voice in an Inuit land.