‘Arctic ethics are inspired by Nordic cooperation’

Greenland has its own culture, language, and government, but isn’t afraid to draw inspiration from its Nordic neighbours. Aqqaluk Lynge, former President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and Greenlandic politician, tells The Local about politics, poetry, and his passion for his country.

'Arctic ethics are inspired by Nordic cooperation'
Photo: Aqqaluk Lynge
Aqqaluk Lynge, 69, has seen and done a lot in his time. He’s a poet as well as a politician and human rights advocate who founded a political party representing the Inuit people.
Back in the late 1960s, he was doing what most students his age were doing: demonstrating for social change.
“There was upheaval across the whole world,” he recalls.
“Greenlandic students in Copenhagen were starting to organize – that’s how my political awareness got started.”
At the time, Aqqaluk and his fellow students were concerned about education; specifically the right of students from Greenland to be able to attend schools close to home rather than 4,000 kilometres away.
“It was part of the youth revolution taking place in Greenland at the time. We wanted to run our own country,” he explains.
While Greenland is part of the Danish Kingdom, along with the Faroe Islands, the island has largely governed itself for centuries. There was a time in history when Denmark tried to assimilate the Inuit people, but it didn’t last.
“Denmark and Greenland succeeded in a peaceful transition of power to indigenous people that is unique in the world,” he claims, referencing the landmark 1979 decision that officially granted Greenland self-government, followed by full self-rule in 2009.
A literary legacy
Aqqaluk, a Kalaallit Inuit, played an instrumental role in the transition as a vocal advocate for indigenous people’s rights – both in Greenland and globally.
He helped found the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) – serving on its executive council for 34 years and twice as the body’s international president from 1997-2002 and 2010-2014. He also founded the Inuit Ataqatigiit political party in 1976.
“My grandfather was one of the two first Greenlandic members of the Danish parliament, and my father was a politician too – so I guess it’s in the family blood,” he muses.
The only thing that ran deeper in his veins was perhaps his sense of Inuit identity.
“It was always there. It was obvious that we have our special identity,” he states.
“We’ve been able to reclaim our culture. Our language is strong. And although we’re just 56,000 people, our literature is alive and thriving.”
Aqqaluk himself is an important contributor to Greenland’s literature legacy, inspired even as a youth to write scores of poems about identity, culture, and language. He has written in Greenlandic, English, Danish, as well as other Nordic languages, reflecting on what it means to be an Inuit and the political situation surrounding his identity.
Much like the lives of his people, Aqqaluk’s prose is free-flowing and natural, not burdened by rigid metric structure.
“My poems were based on my identity as an Inuit,” he says. “I was fighting injustice and asking for respect for the basic human rights of all indigenous peoples.”
A Nordic roadmap
So throughout his life, Aqqaluk has dedicated a lot of energy toward uniting the people of Greenland, as well as indigenous peoples across the world.
And the Nordic nations, he says, gave him a pretty good roadmap.
“The Nordic culture of cooperation and respect is something I have always looked to for guidance,” Aqqaluk explains. “What we were trying to form when we established the ICC was something modelled after the Nordic Council of Ministers.”
The Nordics, he says, place huge importance on cultures – not just their own, but also their relative respect for indigenous cultures as well.
“The Nordic Language Convention, for example, is very important for us in Greenland, and supports all the small languages of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland as well as the Sami language in Scandinavia,” Aqqaluk explains.
“If you look at Canada or Alaska you see that the Inuit languages are disappearing due to the dominance of English. The North American approach to indigenous peoples is very different from the Nordic countries.”
Aqqaluk says numerous Nordic forums for smaller voices to be heard has been a key to the success of the arrangement.
“The political culture here respects the diversity within our own kingdoms. Small nations, and particularly indigenous peoples, need a special forum to be heard – and thanks largely to the Nordic countries, we have that in the form of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.”
Climate pioneers
The spirit of Nordic leadership and cooperation was also present in 1977 when Inuit leaders from across the Arctic region met for the first time as the Inuit Circumpolar Council; an occasion Aqqaluk credits with helping raise awareness about the importance of climate change.
“Even before we knew anything about climate change, the Inuit hunters were talking about it,” he says of the meeting which made clear that environmental protection would be a central focus of the council.
“We learned a lot from the traditional indigenous knowledge on the climate system.”
And the networks formed in the 1970s between the indigenous peoples from across the Nordic and Arctic region helped encourage governments to cooperate and put climate change on the political agenda, Aqqaluk explains, ultimately leading to the formation of the Arctic Council in 1996.
“That is how the Arctic Council was born, out of ideas of the indigenous Arctic cooperation,” he explains. “I think the Arctic people’s cooperation helped inspire governments to organize themselves.”
Environmental cooperation also amplified indigenous people’s political influence, says Aqqaluk.
“The scientific cooperation helped indigenous peoples to gain ground in politics as well, and by helping to discuss questions about how to adapt to climate change,” he adds.
Shared values
While Greenland now manages its own domestic affairs, international affairs are still handled by Denmark – which is fine with Aqqaluk; the two share many values and prioritize many of the same issues.
“The importance of the Nordic countries’ input on the whole world, especially when discussing the environment and climate, is very important,” he says. “We Inuit live in Arctic nations, and the Nordic countries are Arctic nations as well. So we are the ones being hit by the consequences of climate change very rapidly.”
It is only natural, he adds, that the Nordic nations have strong environmental policies and a strong union on how to address the climate challenge. And on the issue of human rights and indigenous rights, too, they play a key role.
“When crises arise with human rights issues, or with indigenous people, the Nordic countries are always up front,” he says. “They have always been there to stand by us. I never forget that.”



For members


Reader Question: Is there a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP?

A reader got in touch to ask whether there is a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP to protest, voice a political opinion, or raise a local issue. Here's how it works in Sweden.

Reader Question: Is there a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP?

People in Sweden do send letters to members of the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, but it doesn’t work in quite the same way as it does in the UK or the US.

Human rights organisations, pressure groups, and concerned individuals will frequently send individual letters or mount letter-writing campaigns to try to influence MPs on issues that concern them.

Sweden is a transparent society, so it is easy to obtain the contact details of MPs in the parliament. You can find emails for all 349 MPs here, or if you prefer to do it the old-fashioned way, you can simply pop your letter in an envelope and send it, with the MPs name at the top, to this address:

Sveriges riksdag,

100 12 Stockholm. 

For the human rights group Amnesty, for instance, writing letters to politicians is one of the main strategies. 

The big difference between writing to your MP in Sweden, and writing to an MP, Congressman, or Senator in the UK or the US, of course, is that MPs in Sweden do not represent a constituency in the same way. 

The UK has 650 constituencies, each with its own MP. Sweden, on the other hand, has 29, with the smallest, Gotland, having two MPs, and the largest, Stockholm, having 43. You can see a map of Sweden’s constituencies here

When citizens vote in general elections, they vote for a political party first, and only then vote for which of the party’s candidates they would most like to represent them, in so-called “personal preference voting”. 

The election authority then distributes the seats in each constituency to each party based on what share of the vote they got in that constituency. A further 39 adjustment seats, which are not tied to a constituency, are then distributed to make sure the number of MPs each party has in parliament reflects their share of the vote at a national level. 

READ ALSO: What are The Local’s reader questions? 

For the purposes of letter-writing, the important difference is that you do not have an MP in Sweden, but several, normally representing rival political parties. 

According to David Karlsson, a professor at Gothenburg University, who has written a paper on letters sent to MPs, most Swedes will have no idea who the MPs are who represent their constituency. 

“It’s very obvious and well-known in Britain who the MP is,” he points out. “Knowledge of who the local MP is in Sweden is very very low, very few people could name the MP elected from their constituency.” 

Another big difference is that MPs in Sweden tend to focus their attention more at the national level, and not to see their primary role as representing the interests of their local constituencies. They don’t hold “surgeries” in their local constituencies in the same way that MPs do in the UK, and are less likely to get involved in helping individual citizens solve local problems.  

Partly this is because what they need to do to get reelected is to retain the support of their local political party organisation, rather than the support of voters. Partly, its because MPs have very little power to influence their local municipalities and regions. 

“There is a big difference in how much [MPs in Sweden] can do. If people want help in their private, local cases, there is very little executive power in being an MP,” Karlsson says.  

As a result, people in Sweden are more likely to write letters to local municipal councillors or regional representatives, rather than to their MPs if they want help with personal problems and local issues. 

When Amnesty writes letters to MPs, they usually decide which MP to write to based on whether they are actively engaged in the issue at hand, or whether they sit on a certain committee, rather than on which constituency they represent. 

When Amnesty is campaigning on a local issue, however, they do sometimes still write letters to MPs based on the constituency where the issue is taking place. 

For instance, when a Romanian citizen living in Gävleborg was hit with heavy medical bills from the regional health authority because she had a baby in a local hospital without the required paperwork, Amnesty sent letters to MPs representing the constituency.