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Rebranding Greenland

Hosting the 2016 Arctic Winter Games allowed Greenland to reveal new sides of itself
Getting a new perspective (Photo: Malik Brøns)

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Nuuk – The Arctic Winter Games drew to a close here on Friday. The games, which closed with a gala event at the city’s main sporting facility, revealed a number of thought-provoking sides of Greenlandic society.

Firstly, a degree of inner strength and an ability to mobilise that has never been seen before here, and which is worth keeping in mind when we continue to discuss Greenland’s dependency on Denmark.

More than 2,000 athletes, their coaches, distinguished guests, referees and spectators from nine Arctic regions were in the Greenlandic capital for six days to take part in the games. The number of guests temporarily added 10% to the city’s population, about the same number per capita as are expected to visit Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Logistically, the games were a far greater task than the country had ever undertaken.

SEE RELATED: Countdown to 2018

For example, during the course of a single day, Air Greenland’s small planes transported 1,100 participants between the international airport at Kangerlussuaq and Nuuk. Participants have been served three meals a day (and liked them). In general, all the logistical details – showering facilities, first-aid, internet access, sporting events, cultural events, transport, signage, press conferences, emergency preparedness and sleeping facilities – went off as planned.

The fact that it all worked may was due to a several notable alliances. Privately owned firms, including Brugseni, a supermarket chain, and Grønlandsbanken, the country’s largest bank, together with nationally controlled firms like Air Greenland and Royal Greenland, a sea-food producer, all made financial and logistical contributions that were decisive to the success of the games. More than 1,700 people took part as volunteers. Their neon green AWG volunteer jackets, were a fixture of the cityscape during the games.

Many in Greenland hope this mobilisation around a common goal will have a lasting impact. Such common sense of purpose has apparently been missing here. Or, as Susanne Kristensen, the head of Brugseni, and a native of southern Greenland, put it: “We’re a small nation that is spread out over an immense territory. Creating a sense of community isn’t easy. Greenland has a lot of challenges. We need to figure out where our future lies, and, to do that, the public and private sectors need to work together. This was what we just did at this event.”

New image
The Arctic Winter Games has also shown how tired Greenlanders have become of their image abroad. Those involved with hosting the games, including Asii Chemnitz Narup, Nuuk’s mayor, and Maliina Abelsen, a former finance minister, have during the past two years repeatedly stated their hope that the games would help shift the media’s coverage of Greenland away social problems, climate change and troubled polar bears.

From the get-go, Visit Greenland, the national tourism agency, was tasked with running the games’ press centre so that the 100 or so journalists who had travelled to Nuuk for the week got the right impression of the country as a “pioneering nation”, to use the organisation’s own slogan.

In recent years, Greenlandic decision-makers have placed a lot of effort into attracting foreign investments, tourists, scientists and others who can contribute to the country’s development, but they are up against deeply seated notions of the Arctic as a frigid, dangerous and inaccessible place, and of Greenlanders, as well as of people of the Arctic in general, as irrational aboriginals largely disconnected from modern society.

Compatriots from abroad
The Arctic Winter Games also showed that Greenlanders still have a noticeable sense of fellowship with people from other parts of the Arctic. The very first Arctic Winter Games was held in 1970, in Yellowknife, making the biennial event one of the oldest, pan-Arctic institutions. Participants include residents from most Arctic territories, including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Sapmi (Norway, Sweden and Finland) and Yamal.

Greenlandic lawmakers have recently been showing less of an interest in their ethnic and cultural bonds with the other peoples of the Arctic as they have gained more autonomy from Denmark. Being an ethnic minority in the Kingdom of Denmark for many years gave Greenlanders certain rights and an identity that could be used to gather the nation.

Today, decision-makers in Nuuk are following a vision of Greenland as a state, and of Greenlanders as the majority group in their own country, making the ethnic-minority role increasingly irrelevant. The amount of money set aside in the national budget to fund the national chapter of ICC, a circumpolar Inuit advocacy group, has been cut dramatically, and the organisation’s place in Greenland’s media has shrunken considerably.

SEE RELATED: Putting Greenland on the map

The Arctic Winter Games showed that Greenland’s cultural ties still have a certain cachet. Traditional Arctic sports disciplines, including kneel jump and two-foot high-kick hearken back to long-gone competitions and survival techniques, but they are still kept alive in sports clubs around Greenland, and they are still performed some of its best-known athletes.

For those involved with such sports, the Arctic Winter Games are important. These Arctic sports are the marquee event of the games, ahead of downhill skiing, indoor football, snowboarding and other, more contemporary sports.

Tuuparnaq Kreutzmann, the head of Elite Sport Greenland, an association that promotes Greenlandic participation in international sport, and herself a former Arctic Winter Games medallist, explains it this way: “During the games, we meet people who can be considered to be compatriots. They belong to the same ethnic group, and they have been colonised the same way we have. We have our own particular sense of humour, and in a way we’ve been a bit lost in a modern world that prioritises things like work and earning money. Our languages have also been marginalised and are being lost. We have a lot in common, and the games help to keep our spirit alive.”

Political comeback
This year, the Arctic Winter Games may turn out to have a political aspect. Now that the games are over will Ms Abelsen be heading back into politics? Between 2011 and 2013, she served as finance minister, and was a leading member of IA, a political party that now sits in opposition. Having a successful Arctic Winter Games under her belt would only add to her electability.

She maintains that she has left politics for good, but it is likely that her old party will do what it can to lure her back. This pressure will only increase if Siumut, which currently leads the government, changes its line up. Siumut’s own heavy hitter, Aleqa Hammond, a former premier, is currently parked in Copenhagen as a member of the Folketing, the Danish national assembly. But, it’s not unlikely that she could return to Nuuk, bringing with her an outspoken brand of nationalistic, independence-minded politics, all of which plays well with many voters.

Should Ms Hammond wade back into Nuuk politics, Ms Abelsen can be sure to expect her phone to ring insistently.

The author is a Danish journalist who has written extensively about Arctic issues, including most recently The Greenland Dilemma.