Political upheaval in Greenland — What does Inuit Ataqatigiit do now?

Members of Greenland’s Inuit Ataqatigiit wave party flags as they celebrate following the exit polls results of the legislative election in Nuuk, on April 6, 2021. The party won with 36.6 per cent of the vote, defeating the ruling Siumut party which received 29.4 per cent.  (Emil Helms / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP via Getty Images)
The future of a rare earth mineral extraction project in Greenland is now up in the air, after the left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit party won Greenland’s election on Tuesday in a campaign often dominated by the controversial mining plan.

As the dust settled Wednesday, elections Greenland reported Inuit Ataqatigiit won with 36.6 per cent of the vote, defeating the ruling Siumut party which received 29.4 per cent. 

Inuit Ataqatigiit, led by Mute Bourup Egede, will hold 12 of the 31-seats in the Inatsisartut, the Greenlandic parliament. Siumut, led by Erik Jensen, will hold 10, with the remaining seats split among three other parties. 

Tuesday’s snap election was triggered this February after the Siumut coalition government fell apart over the Kvanefjeld rare earth mining project.

“This mine became such an evidently strong factor in a substantial political change and I think that’s very significant,” says Martin Breum. (Courtesy Martin Breum)

Siumut has governed in Greenland since 1979, except from 2009-2013 when Inuit Ataqatigiit, lead by Kuupik Kleist, was in power.

“The economic promises of that mine are very large and there must have been a tremendous temptation for politicians and many people in Greenland to say ‘Of course we should embrace this mine, take the royalties, take the taxes, take the jobs and opportunities for growth that could lead towards economic and political independence [from Denmark], but that’s not what happened,” Martin Breum, a journalist and author of serval books about the Arctic, who covered the elections for Danish and other international media, said in a phone interview. 

“Instead, a majority in Greenland said ‘No Thanks,’ we will not tolerate the risks the environmental risks that this mine represents. We don’t care if [the company] can submit themselves to environmental regulations and is possibly able to operate in the legal boundaries of our environmental laws. We don’t want it.

“I think it’s a testament to the desire to protect the environment and the way of life that a lot of Greenlanders already live. That was the core of the victory for Inuit Ataqatigiit and I think it’s very thought provoking.”

Greenland Election Results
Voters stand in line to cast their ballots at a polling station in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, on April 6, 2021. (Emil Helms / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP via Getty Images)

PARTY

Inuit Ataqatigiit

LEADER

Mute Bourup Egede

2021 VOTE %

(2018 VOTE %)

36.6 % (25.5%)

SEATS

12

Siumut Erik Jensen 29.4 % (27.2%) 10
Naleraq Hans Enoksen 12% (13.4%) 4
Democrats Jens Frederik Nielsen 9.1% (19.5%) 3
Atassut Aqqalu Jerimiassen 6.9% (5.9%) 2

Source: Elections Greenland

Contentious dispute

The project, also known as Kuannersuit in Greenlandic, has been an ongoing source of controversy in the territory.

Australian company Greenland Minerals, holds the license to the project with China’s Shenghe Resources holding a majority stake, and says it has the potential to become ” … the most significant western world producer of rare earths.”

The project is slated to consist of a mine, a concentrator and refinery. 

Rare earth minerals are used in everything from electronics to automobiles. Greenland Minerals says it projects that 80 per cent of the project’s revenue would come from rare earth minerals, with the remaining 20 per cent made up of uranium, zinc and fluorspar by-products.

Exploration for the project has been ongoing over a decade. Public consultations have begun and are slated to go on through June.

Siumut has long touted the economic and job spin-offs of the potential project in an area of Greenland that has long suffered de-population and high unemployment. The party has also promoted the project’s potential to help facilitate independence. 

Chairman of the Inuit Ataqatigiit party Mute B. Egede poses in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, on election day. The party stressed throughout the campaign they’re not against mining in Greenland, but are against the specific Kuannersuit project because of the environmental impacts as well as concerns over uranium mining for nearby communities. (Christian Klindt Solbeck/ AFP via Getty Images)

Greenland, with a population of  56,000 people, is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. The territory has had home-rule government since 1979, with Denmark responsible for things like foreign affairs and the military. Denmark also provides an annual subsidy of 4.5 billion Danish kroner (approximately $900-million CDN).

But Inuit Ataqatigiit, also a pro-independence party, has raised ongoing concerns about the project on everything from its longterm impact on the environment to the potential health impacts of the uranium byproducts for neighbouring communities. 

The party says the focus should be on developing things like tourism and farming to help build up the region’s economy and that independence in general can and should be achieved on a more diverse economic base.

What does Inuit Ataqatigiit do now?
“I was expecting this result, the mining project has been quite controversial and it has really divided the population,” says joint PhD fellow Parnuna Egede Dahl. (Courtesy Parnuna Egede Dahl)

Inuit Ataqatigiit has frequently evoked the possibility of a referendum on the project’s future. But a supplementary agreement to the project, signed by Kuupik Kleist during the previous Inuit Ataqatigiit government, also allows for the project to be dismissed for political or technical reasons without being sued. 

Parnuna Egede Dahl, a joint PhD Fellow at Ilisimatusarfik, the University of Greenland, and  Denmark’s Aalborg University, and whose work looks at the use of indigenous knowledge in environmental impact assessments of extractive industry projects in Greenland, says all eyes are now on how Inuit Ataqatigiit handles the Kuannersuit project question once in power.

“I’m really interested to see what Inuit Ataqatigiit does now,” said Egede Dahl in phone interview from Denmark. “They’ve been asking for a referendum several times. But now that they’re in power, will they still ask for one? Or will they use the supplementary agreement to dissent from the project?”

‘There’s a civil war going on in Siumut’
“There’s a fierce struggle going on in Siumut and Kielsen got by far the most personal votes in this election,” says Rasmus Leander Nielsen from Ilisimatusarfik – the University of Greenland. “He could now claim that he is the legitimate leader of the party so that’s something we’re going to have to follow quite closely.”  (Courtesy Rasmus Leander Nielsen)

Inuit Ataqatigiit is credited with running a disciplined and focused campaign and picked up seats mostly from voters abandoning the Democrats party.  And although Siumut was able to add one seat, going from 9 to 10 in the election, political watchers say Siumut’s implosion over leadership struggles, likely played a key role in their eventual overall loss on Tuesday.

Premier Kim Kielsen was ousted as Siumut chairman in a November party congress over domestic issues and what was often described as a top-down leadership style that was counterproductive to coalition governments. Erik Jensen was named as his replacement but despite this, Kielsen refused to step down as premier.  

“There’s a civil war going on Siumut that’s been going on for years that wasn’t really about the mining project,” Rasmus Leander Nielsenan assistant professor at the University of Greenland’s Institute of Social Science, Economics & Journalism, said in a phone interview from Nuuk, Greenland’s capital.

“It’s quite obvious they haven’t made a transition from the former governing party leader, to the new one that was elected at the party congress in November. So there are quite a few take aways from that.”

Egede Dahl agrees.

“The internal trouble in the Siumut party really cost them trust and votes,” she said. “They need a more stable internal party environment to show voters that they can work on party politics instead of focusing on politics within their party.

“If they can do that, I think they would get the trust back.”

From left to right: Candidates Tillie Martinussen, from the Suleqatigiissitsisut party, Erik Jensen from Siumut and Mute Bourup Egede from Inuit Ataqatigiit at the KNR (Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation) debates on March 5, 2021, in Nuuk. (NTB via AP)

The picture is further complicated by the amount of votes received by Kim Kielsen (1,841) vs Erik Jensen (1,186).

Rumors are already swirling that Kielsen may call an extraordinary party congress and use the election result to demand a revote about who should be leader of the party.

Coalition talks ahead

Sixteen seats are required to form an outright majority in the Inatsisartut. 

Inuit Ataqatigiit is expected to wrap up coalition talks over the next 7-14 days.

Correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly said that it was Mute Bourup Egede that recieved 1,186 personal votes. In fact, it was Erik Jensen, leader of Siumut that received 1,186 votes. Mute Bourup Egede, leader of Inuit Ataqatigiit recieved 3,380 votes.

This version has been corrected.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Mining companies in Nunavut, Canada defend environmental management despite stiff criticism, CBC News

Finland: Miners hunting for metals to battery cars threaten Finland’s Sámi reindeer herders’ homeland, Yle News

Greenland: Arctic island finds green power can be a curse, Thomson Reuters

Russia: Can the environment withstand Arctic Russia’s coal mining boom?, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Reducing emissions could create up to 3,000 new jobs in Arctic Sweden says mining group, Radio Sweden

United States: Conservation groups sue government over Alaska mining road, The Associated Press

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying an culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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