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Northern profiles

Still fighting, after all these years

At 70, Lars-Emil Johansen is willing to keep up the struggle for Greenlandic independence. He’s just not sure why it is still necessary
Politics
Keep bringing it on (Photo: Katherine Kruse)

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This article is a part of Northern Profiles, our occasional series of articles about Arctic personalities, past or present.

When Lars-Emil Johansen turned 70 on September 24, he could celebrate as the newly re-elected speaker of Inatsisartut, Greenland’s national assembly. For most in his country, it is a position that is all but unattainable. For Mr Johansen, on the other hand, serving as the leader of his nation’s legislature may be as natural as turning another year older.

As Greenland’s most experienced living lawmaker, Mr Johansen has been a pillar of Siumut, the political party that, with the exception of a single term, from 2009 to 2013, has led Greenland ever since it was granted home rule, in 1979.

But whether it has been as party leader (1987-1997), premier (1991-1997), representing Greenland in the Folketing, the Danish national assembly (1973-1979 and 2001-2011), or now as the speaker of Inatsisartut (since 2013), Mr Johansen has been not just at the forefront of the struggle of not just politics in his country, he has been amongst the loudest advocates for an independent and stronger society, built up by a greater Greenlandic influence in national institutions, and, in particular, the country’s media.

SEE RELATED: No direction

Such policies are as despised by some as they are loved by others. But, regardless of which camp voters fall in, most speak of him only in terms of respect for his dedication to the cause of an independent Greenland.

Mr Johansen himself is not satisfied with how things have turned out. Greenland is not as independent as it ought to be, he believes. This is a position he is not shy about sharing, not even it if it means coming down hard on the current leadership of his party. Being outspoken wins him no popularity contests, but that, he believes, is less important than telling it like it is.

Take, for example, a political system in which “nothing at all” has happened since he was premier.

“The most important thing for politicians today is to say the right thing. But all that means is that nothing gets done. People are all talk and no action. It’s like politicians want to do something but they get stopped at some point or other by a system they are too weak to stand up to. As a result, no decisions get made,” he says.

SEE RELATED: Greenland independence “a task for the next generation”

Cleaning up the system, he believes, is essential for making sure that when the legislature makes decisions, it has an administration that is capable of putting them into action.

“Politicians aren’t experts. They are there to try to put their parties’ policies into law and to make the compromises that are necessary to make that happen. It’s the bureaucracy’s job to make sure what they decide becomes reality. We can’t afford not to have anything happen.”

If Greenland is to become politically independent, the path will go through economic independence. As things stand right now, this progress is going far to slowly for Mr Johansen’s liking.

“We need to find new sources of income. And for that to happen, we need to promote growth,” he says. That growth, he reckons, can only come from the private sector, but with just 20% of the country’s economy not controlled in some way or another by the public sector, typically through national ownership of firms, there is still much work to be done.

“It’d be good if we reached a point where it was evenly split, 50-50. When we were granted home rule we turned a lot of publicly run firms into companies that were to be privatised at some point with the eventual goal of fostering competition and the benefits that has for consumers. That hasn’t happened yet.”

SEE RELATED: An ode to being former

Part of the reason why, he admits, is the challenge of creating a private sector in a place like Greenland. “But, in the places where it is possible we need to do it if we want the economy to grow and if we want to make sure that our people and our businesses get the best, most affordable services possible,” he says

After earning his teaching certificate in 1970, a process that, at that time, included a mandatory year in Denmark, Mr Johansen began his career in politics a year later, when he was elected to the Landsråd, an early form of legislature whose main role was as a consultative body to the Danish officials making decisions about Greenland.

After accomplishing just about everything a politician could accomplish in Greenland, it appeared that Mr Johansen’s career as an elected official had drawn to a close in 2011, when he chose to leave politics in order to try his hand working in the private sector. But in 2013, dissatisfied with the pace of change after Nuuk had been granted self-rule from Copenhagen in 2009 as part of an agreement that saw further devolution of power, control over underground resources and the right to declare independence, Mr Johansen made a return to politics.

After the progress made under the home-rule system, he finds self-rule has been a political and an economic disappointment.

“Things are going way too slowly,” he says. “We ought to consider reinstating our slogan from the 1990s: ‘Give the private sector a chance’.”

SEE RELATED: Greenland’s government headed in new direction

As an example of the problem the country is facing, he points to applications from foreign firms to explore for minerals that get stranded in the bureaucracy. That is something else Greenland can’t afford, he says.

“I’m a politician, not a public official, but I can’t understand why that sort of thing should take years to sort out.”

Overcoming the hurdles Greenland faces “requires taking action”, but even with the challenges the country faces, Mr Johansen remains optimistic about its prospects.

“There are a lot of talented young people out there who are ready to lead our society, and I am ready to keep working for Greenland’s independence.”

This article originally appeared in Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic newspaper published by this website’s parent company. It appears here in an abridged version.

This article is a part of Northern Profiles, our occasional series of articles about Arctic personalities, past or present.