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Denmark issues final apology for 1950s social experiment on Inuit children from Greenland

The "Little Danes" experiment sought to make Inuit children from Greenland more Danish in their thinking to serve as role models for their peers.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — At Katuaq, a culture center located in Nuuk, Greenland, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen delivered a final apology Tuesday for Denmark's role in an experiment in which 22 Greenland Inuit children aged 4 to 9 were taken away from their families to be raised in Denmark in 1951.

The ceremony arranged by Frederiksen was fully attended by the public and had Greenlandic musicians, authors and speeches from both Mette Frederiksen and chairman of Greenland’s government Naalakkersuisut, Múte Bourup Egede in the program.

"Today is an important day for Greenland and Denmark,” Frederiksen told the audience. “I hope from the bottom of my heart that we can put an ending remark to the injustice you have experienced in our common past."

She added, “On behalf of Denmark, once again we apologize," and received a standing ovation.

Her last words were recived with standing applause from the audience.

Greenland’s chairman of Naalakkersuisut Múte Bourup Egede welcomed the apology and thanked Denmark for admitting the nation's past mistake.

“An apology which was given last week and is marked today. That will be the foundation for the reconciliation of those things that happened, but shouldn’t have happened in our lives,” Egede said.

In 1951, together with humanitarian organizations Save the Children, the Red Cross and the then-national council of Greenland, Denmark engaged in an experiment to remove 22 Greenlandic children from their homes and raise them in Denmark. The plan had been to create a new Greenlandic elite by raising the children with a Danish mindset and return them to Greenland to act as role models for other children.

But the experiment failed. The children had forgot their mother tongue and the distance from their families alienated them from their native communities. Eventually, six of the children were adopted by Danish families and the other 16 were placed in a children’s home in Nuuk. Many of the children suffered trauma from the experiment and some even took their own lives.

“This case and decision [to go with the experiment] were taken in another period. It happened under colonialization, but Greenland also has a responsibility regarding to why the apology came this late. Now we know our history, and that is why we apologize for not pressuring the Danish state enough to make them admit their mistakes,” he said.

With folded hands and gazes towards the floor, a minute of silence was observed to honor the 16 people who were subjected to the experiment who have since died. Only six remain alive today, all around the age of 80, and some attended the ceremony.

Greenland is self-governed country under the Danish Realm. The island nation has received increased autonomy from Denmark in recent decades.

In December 2020, Denmark issued a written apology for its role in the experiment following an investigation published a month prior. Frederiksen initially wanted to apologize face to face with the remaining people from the experiment, but the pandemic delayed the initiative.

The six living subjects sued Denmark for intervening with their rights regarding private and family life. The parties settled the case in February, with Denmark paying each of them about $37,000.

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