A few lessons for Labradorians

Michael Johansen
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Almost three-quarters of Greenland's more than 39,000 eligible voters turned out last week for a referendum about independence from Denmark.
More than three-quarters of those voters said they want to move their island even further away from their old colonial master.
Greenland has a long history. Various peoples had been migrating there from the west since more than 4,500 years ago. Archaeologists have found evidence of at least three different cultures that settled in the northern fjords - cultures that eventually disappeared for various reasons. The most successful inhabitants, the ancestors of modern Inuit, arrived in the 13th century and made a home for themselves in the North. The first Europeans were Icelanders who began settling the south in the late 900s. Greenland famously got its name because Eric the Red wanted to lure farmers away from land-scarce Iceland.
All the European colonies on Greenland - the Eastern and Western Settlements - were politically independent until the late 1200s when they came under the rule of the King of Norway. The Norwegians maintained their ownership even after all the colonies died out, but by the time they recolonized Greenland three centuries later - arbitrarily assuming control over the lives of the Inuit inhabitants - the country had merged with Denmark. When the two separated again in 1814, Denmark got the best part of the divorce settlement, keeping both Greenland and Iceland.
Iceland was the first to gain home rule in 1904 and full sovereignty from Denmark in 1918. Greenland remained a colony until 1953, when it officially became a Danish county - in effect an integral part of Denmark - just like Labrador's just like the Burin Peninsula, to cite a former Newfoundland premier. From then on, Greenlanders had the right to send a representative to the Danish parliament.
Greenlanders have used their franchise quite often and they're no strangers to a referendum. In 1973, 70 per cent of them voted against Denmark joining the European customs union, preferring its trade connections going westwards, and in 1982, 53 per cent voted to take Greenland out of it. Just four years earlier they had already voted in favour of home rule, getting their very own parliament, one with jurisdiction over most domestic affairs and considerable control over many natural resources.
Now, because of last week's referendum - which, although legally non-binding, the Danish government has promised to implement the results of next June - oil will be added to the list of Greenland's resources, giving the evolving state more lucrative prospects for the future. That state will also gain increased powers over the local police and coast guard and have a greater say in Greenland's foreign affairs.
The vote can affect Canada in a number of ways. First of all, it means Ottawa will be dealing more directly with the government in Nuuk in disputes and negotiations over borders and drilling rights. The vote also offers an example to regions contemplating a change in their own political status.
Labradorians are no strangers to voting, but they haven't been given so many opportunities to participate in referenda on subjects like that. Ironically, they were first allowed the vote in 1948, when they defied Newfoundland's tepid support by going about 80 per cent in favour of Confederation. Apparently, many of those voters hoped and believed it would put Labrador directly under the Canadian government and were somewhat disappointed when they discovered it did not.
Although Labradorians have voted many times since, usually they've only been choosing between various candidates (often parachute candidates) for outside parliaments. They've never been able to vote for members of their own region-wide assembly and they've never again been asked their opinion about Labrador's status within Confederation.
It came close once. In the 1990s, as a response to growing dissatisfaction with the provincial government, the Combined Councils of Labrador contemplated a resolution calling for a referendum - one that might even have gone so far as to directly ask about separation from Newfoundland. However, at the last minute, after closed-door discussions, the delegates to the Combined Councils - which until then had served as an open forum for Labrador's disaffection - defeated the resolution.
The referendum has never been set, but the question remains: Who wants home rule for Labrador?

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Eastern and Western Settlements

Geographic location: Greenland, Denmark, Newfoundland Iceland Norway Canada Ottawa Nuuk

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