Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
Donald Trump’s desire to buy Greenland caused bemusement in this Arctic capital, not least because he wanted to negotiate with the Prime Minister of Denmark.
Greenland is indeed part of the Kingdom of Denmark. But the island has been self-governing since 2009, under an agreement with Denmark that explicitly recognizes a right to full independence, if and when Greenlanders make that choice.
For the moment, the majority of Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants are content to remain with Denmark, which has for decades funded high-quality infrastructure, housing, education and health care. Greenlanders, 88 per cent of whom are Inuit, know how poorly Indigenous peoples are treated elsewhere, including in Alaska.
Greenlanders are also bemused by widespread reporting in foreign media about a race for their resources between the U.S. and China.
There are just two small mines operating in Greenland: one for rubies, the other for anorthosite, rock used to make fibreglass. The development of a large iron-ore mine was stymied by low world prices, while another proposed mine – for uranium and rare-earth minerals – failed three successive environmental impact assessments. Nor are there any oil or gas wells in Greenland, after exploratory drilling failed to locate viable deposits.
Greenland is open to trade and foreign investment, but there are easier and less expensive places for the U.S. and China to access resources: in Africa, Latin America, Australia and even Canada. And while the island is very large, most of it is covered by a kilometres-thick ice cap. Climate change is melting the surface of the ice, but most of it will remain frozen for centuries.
Climate change is, however, threatening subsistence hunting and commercial fishing, the current bases of Greenland’s economy. Rising water temperatures are already causing fish stocks to move, while ocean acidification, driven by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, will eventually take its own toll.
So the Greenlandic government has decided to increase international tourism. Cruise ships already visit the spectacular coastline, but their passengers sleep and eat on board. The real prize involves tourists arriving by air, since they require hotels, restaurants and ground transportation. Iceland and Finland are the current leaders in fly-in Arctic tourism, but Greenland is more exotic and closer to major centres in the U.S.
Short runways at Nuuk and Ilulissat are being extended to accommodate large jets, with financing provided by the Danish government, which only came on board after the Greenlandic government cleverly solicited interest from China. Nuuk and Ilulissat are now experiencing property booms, with construction sites on dozens of street corners.
Mr. Trump accidentally identified this actual real estate opportunity when, in the midst of the controversy over his desired purchase of the whole island, he jokingly tweeted a doctored photo of a Trump Tower in a Greenlandic village.
The upcoming tourism boom will create opportunities for Canada. The Inuit of Greenland and Canada already share a language, history and living culture. Almost everyone in Greenland has seen The Grizzlies, the 2018 film about how a youth lacrosse team lifted the suicide-plagued community of Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Greenlanders are huge fans of Twin Flames, an Ottawa-based band that blends Inuit and First Nations music with folk rock.
For centuries, Inuit travelled freely across Baffin Bay by kayak, umiak and dogsled. But while Nuuk is just 800 kilometres from Iqaluit, there are no scheduled flights between Greenland and Canada. To get here, I had to route through Iceland, which is twice as far away to the East.
Tourists visiting Greenland should be just a hop or two away from Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, Qikiqtarjuaq, Clyde River and Pond Inlet, the so-called Switzerland of the Arctic. Tourism is never an economic panacea, but if done well, it can create jobs that are located within communities, celebrate Indigenous culture and are friendlier to the environment than most extractive industries.
Air links would also strengthen political co-operation between Greenland and Nunavut, building on decades of collaboration in the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a transnational organization that sits alongside the member states at Arctic Council meetings.
For example, the governments of Greenland and Nunavut could co-manage the waters between them, protecting unique ecosystems such as the Pikialasorsuaq, the “Great Upwelling,” a continuously ice-free area that straddles the international boundary and is the most biologically productive location in the entire Arctic.
Greenlanders are not for sale. They have their own plans, which prominently include inviting the world to visit this extraordinary island-nation. Canada, their closest neighbour, should reach out to them – with a plan, and money, for new flights across Baffin Bay.
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