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On 1 January 2009, much of the western parts of the municipality of Sibbo (Sipoo) was forcibly incorporated in the city of Helsinki. This was against the wishes of the vast majority of Sibbo’s inhabitants, of both language groups. In a referendum, 93,3% voted against being incorporated in Helsinki, with only 5% in favour. Still, the central government voted in favour of Helsinki’s forced annexation of the western areas of the centuries old municipality, with only both ministers from the Swedish People’s Party and one lone Centre minister voting against – in accordance with the people’s will – in cabinet.
Today, 8 February 2012, the government finally released its long awaited proposal for the redrawing of Finland’s municipal boundaries. The government proposes cutting the number of municipalities in mainland Finland from today’s 320 to around 70. The municipal level of government in Finland is responsible for the delivery of many services, including healthcare and schools. It must be said that a reform is necessary: the economic situation in many rural, depopulating, ageing districts is very bad, affecting their ability to offer high quality services. Many small districts are compelled to form municipal joint organs with their neighbouring municipalities in order to provide services such as healthcare, with these being managed by less democratically accountable joint committees rather than the individual municipal councils that are directly and transparently elected by municipal residents. But, the government’s proposal appears rushed and ill thought out and plays little attention to linguistic rights and historical identities.
The government today proposes that Sibbo as a municipality is abolished, either subsumed into a super metropolis of a greater Helsinki or ripped into two and split between two neighbouring unilingually Finnish municipalities. Let’s not forget, that Sibbo was until 2003 a majority Swedish-speaking municipality. It was unilingually Swedish until 1953 and its demographics have only rapidly changed in recent decades due to mass internal migration from the Finnish-speaking interior to locations nearer the capital. Still today it has a strong Swedish minority. In an instance, the bureaucratic municipality reform risks sweeping away centuries of history and diminishing the rights of those Swedish-speakers that live in Sibbo.
But it is not just in Sibbo that linguistic rights are threatened with this reform. One proposal suggests that the northern portion of the bilingual municipality of Sjundeå is hived off and “unilingualised” as it is incorporated with its unilingual northern Finnish neighbours; at an instant, the rights of Swedish-speakers to services in their own language would be removed. In Österbotten, at least five majority Swedish-speaking municipalities would suddenly find themselves in new structures were Swedish was the language of only a third of the population.
Finland has two national languages. For Swedish to live in all domains, there must be administrative structures at all levels that operate using Swedish, including municipalities were the language of administration is Swedish. This would reduce these to barely more than a handful. And even outside of language considerations, this reform places local decision-making further away from the individual citizen.
A better idea would be for the government to consider the model in other countries, such as Sweden, where there are both elected counties and municipalities. The larger county level of government could be responsible for such things as the delivery of healthcare and public transportation, services that are more economically efficiently delivered by a larger body with a larger population base. In such a system, municipalities could remain as smaller units than the huge, faceless, unhistorical entities proposed by the government today. Local identities could remain intact meaning that people would remain engaged with local democracy due to living in districts they identified with.
Pictured: An old sign on the western border of Sibbo. Is the municipality about to go the same way as the region of Östra Nyland that was abolished already on 1st January 2011?
Finland’s new prime minister, the national coalition party’s Jyrki Katainen, made his first foreign trip to Sweden yesterday. In Stockholm he met with Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Reinfeldt and Katainen have known each other for many years as they were both active in their respective parties’ youth organisations at roughly the same time. Reinfeldt heads Sweden’s Moderate Party, our western neighbour’s ideological equivalent of Katainen’s party.
Following their meeting, the pair hosted a press conference at Rosenbad, the Swedish government’s press centre. These two prime ministers, both of countries which have Swedish as their official languages, conducted it in English. I think it is fair to guess that this was not at Reinfeldt’s insistence. There is something very strange about the Prime Minister of the bilingual Finland choosing to speak English at a press conference with a Scandinavian neighbour. Can you imagine the Canadian prime minister visiting Paris and not conducting matters in French? It would be simply unthinkable.
Speaking afterwards, Katainen explained that he likes the Swedish language but that in such a situation he preferred to speak English because he had not given Swedish the time he should have earlier in life. He stressed that no symbolism should be read into his choice of language in Stockholm. Yet, how can one not see any symbolism? The Prime Minister of a bilingual country can not even manage to speak one of its official languages in a press conference in a Nordic context? Embarrassing at the very least. The assembled journalists must have certainly thought it odd.
In fairness to Katainen, he has notably made an effort to communicate in Swedish during last months electoral campaigning and government negotiation process here in Finland. His Swedish is not particularly good, but he has improved it since taking the chairmanship of his party. So, it is difficult to really argue that he has an utterly negative attitude towards Swedish as a language or to the people that speak it in this country. That said, he has been absent in any loud criticism of his party’s youth wing which is increasingly anti-Swedish (and anti-immigrant) in its attitudes. Above all, it is a sad day when a Finnish prime minister can not communicate with our Nordic neighbours without having to resort to a foreign language.
Kokoomus’ party chairman and finance minister Jyrki Katainen, likely to be Finland’s next Prime Minister if the opinion polls are correct.
Saturday is the final day of campaigning for the political parties and candidates contesting this year’s parliamentary election. Voting will take place tomorrow between 9.00 – 20.00 at polling stations across the country. Although, over 30 percent of the electorate have already voted during the advanced voting period. On election day, voting must be done at the polling station nearest one’s home.
The rise of the True Finns
This campaign has been in many ways the most interesting and exciting for many years. Sadly, largely for unfortunate reasons. It has seen the emergence of the populist nationalist True Finns party of Timo Soini. The party is anti-immigrant and anti-Swedish language. It is against the European Union and the euro, a populist stance to take and an easy vote-winner at a time in which EU financial support is required by several member states in economic crisis. During the course of the last few months, opinion polls have showed that Soini’s gang could take as much as 18-20% of the vote, although they have fallen back slightly in recent days. The True Finns will likely come out of tomorrow’s poll nearly as large as the three big parties, Centre, the national coalition Kokoomus, and the Social Democrats. For a party that won only 4% in the last election in 2007, this must be considered a great success. Sadly, Soini’s True Finns will be the big winners tomorrow. But, I am sceptical as to whether all those voting for the True Finns are actually racists. I suspect many will cast their vote for the True Finns as a mark of mistrust against the established political movements, a protest vote. We have seen party election finance scandals in most of the traditional parties during the last four years. Many who have said they will vote True Finns when asked by opinion pollsters may actually change their mind when faced with the list of candidates at the polling booth. Timo Soini is almost the sole known voice of the party, and he can’t stand in every constituency. Whilst he may even top the poll in the Uusimaa (Nyland) electoral district, voters in other parts of the country will be face with a True Finns candidate list of unknowns. They may just decide to vote for someone they know from another party. Should the True Finns win big, will they enter government? I see it as unlikely. Their beliefs are simply too different from the other likely government parties. Sure, we’ve had coalitions between the conservatives of Kokoomus and Social Democrats before – but they both agreed on fundamental issues such as our European Union membership. The True Finns do not. And, Soini may have a battle on his hands to avoid his party splitting or falling apart during the next parliament. Already there are tensions between the two main blocs within the party; hard-right nationalist members of the racist Suomen Sisu organisation and those members of the former Rural Party. One must also remember that most of the True Finns candidates have little to no political experience. They may find parliament rather boring once they get there.
Turnout in this election is likely to be higher than in the last two due to the less predictable nature of the outcome. The Swedish People’s Party (SFP) has traditionally benefited from a lower turnout, as Swedish-speaking Finns vote in disproportionately higher numbers. This advantage may be rubbed out this time. Although, on the other hand, perhaps even more Swedish-speakers will vote – and vote for SFP rather than other parties – because of the threat of the anti-Swedish True Finns and because of the recently worsened language climate in general.
In the Nyland (Uusimaa) electoral district, SFP should be able to hold onto its three mandates. But, they may well change hands. They party will have difficulty increasing its presence in an electoral district that has seen ever increasing immigration from the Finnish Finland. Kokoomus’ charismatic foreign minister Alexander Stubb may also win a significant number of Swedish-speakers’ votes. He has been campaigning also in Swedish with full page advertisements in Hufvudstadsbladet. The SDP will be hoping that at least Maarit Feldt-Ranta wins reelection, she is likely to do so. This is the country’s largest electoral district, and Timo Soini is on the True Finns’ list. It will be interesting to see whether he manages to top the poll in the district. He faces a strong challenge from the likes of Jyrki Katainen (leader of Kokoomus) and Stubb. Indeed, it will also be interesting to see if the popular Stubb manages to gain more votes than his party chairman.
In Helsingfors (Helsinki), SFP will hold onto its existing seat. It’s unlikely to increase to two mandates. It is possible that Jörn Donner will win more votes than current Europe and Migration Minister Astrid Thors and thus push her out of the next parliament. Donner is likely to appeal also to Finnish-speaking voters in the capital. However, Thors – who has been widely attacked by anti-immigration populists in many parties – may also win support from Finnish-speaking liberals who are appalled at the current populist tone the immigration debate. The SDP’s Jacob Söderman is retiring from parliament and his Swedish-speaking voters will be up for grabs.
In Egentliga Finland (Varsinais-Suomi, Finland Proper), SFP leader Stefan Wallin will almost certainly hold onto his seat.
In Vasa electoral district, SFP will be looking to hold onto its four mandates. It almost certainly shall. However, the popular Vasa politician Håkan Nordman is retiring and he commanded many votes also from Finnish-speakers in his hometown. So, there are lots of votes ‘going spare’ to be won. The Christian Democrats’ Bjarne Kallis is also retiring, and it’s likely that many of his Swedish-speaking voters will abandon the Christian Democrats for another party. SFP may benefit from this. The Swedish-speaking arm of the Social Democrats (FSD) has also campaigned hard in this election. They will be hoping that their chairman, Steven Frostdahl, will win a seat. He may well do. The Social Democrat vote will be helped in the Vasa electoral district by the fact that party chair Jutta Urpilainen is on the candidate list in the region. The Centre party has in recent years tried to establish a Swedish-speaking district, however it has been largely discredited by the erratic actions of its chairman Peter Albäck. Centre is unlikely to pick up more than a handful of votes from Swedish-speaking residents of Österbotten.
SFP is also, for the first time, standing candidates in Lappland and Uleåborg (Oulu). The chairman of the Sami Assembly is standing on the SFP list in Lappland. It will be interesting to see how many votes he manages to gather. It is however extremely unlikely that SFP will win a seat in either district. The party is merely preparing to go national in advance of the new election law coming into force, which is likely to have a 3% minimum threshold for parliamentary representation. As the threshold will be based on the nationwide share of the vote, every vote will be important for smaller parties in the future.
Meanwhile on Åland, the election is likely to be met with weak interest and a low voter turnout. Åland has its own political parties and most decisions are taken locally in this autonomous province. People there will be more interested in elections for Åland’s own parliament later this year. The sitting candidate, Elisabeth Nauclér, who represents the non-socialist parties on Åland, should easily win reelection. She sits together with SFP members in parliament as part of the so-called Swedish Parliamentary Group.
Come back tomorrow from 20.00 Finnish time (17.00 GMT), when I hope to provide a live blog of the results.
With the forthcoming parliamentary election on 17 April, the increasingly numbers of populistic attacks on the Swedish language, Swedish-speakers, and immigrants, a number of music artists have been brought together by Folktinget (the Swedish Assembly of Finland) in a song for tolerance and openness. Famous names including Geir Rönning, Krista Siegfrieds, André Linman, Elin Blom, Paradise Oskar (who will represent Finland in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest) are amongst those who have contributed to the song entitled Vår tid – vårt land.
The song will be released on 11 April and Folktinget hopes that it will be spread widely also via social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
A demonstration against obligatory teaching of Swedish in Finnish-language medium schools took place today outside Parliament in the capital.
According to the organisers, the protest was to alert the electorate in April’s parliamentary election to the issue of language. The demonstration was arranged by the nationalistic organisation Suomalaisuuden liitto, the ”Finnishness Association”. The organisation has in the past called for the eradication of Swedish at all levels in Finnish society, including on the unilingual Åland islands. The organisers have arranged free bus transport to Helsinki for protesters.
Counter-demonstrators in favour of diversity and the Swedish language are also attended. Päivi Storgård, a parliamentary candidate for the Swedish People’s Party in Helsinki, called the counter-demonstration. The association of Swedish-speaking history students at the University of Helsinki is also participated with the aim, according to Hufvudstadsbladet, of ensuring that there were also ”living Swedish-speaking Finns there, not just language radicals and politicians”.
The clearly intolerant and discriminative nature of the demonstration was confirmed when shouts of “Finland for the Finns” were heard from the anti-Swedish protesters, one can only assume that they don’t believe Swedish-speaking Finns belong in Finland.
This must be the first time in history that a demonstration has taken place against education and knowledge.
Video source: Hufvudstadsbladet, hbl.fi
An survey by the opinion poll company Taloustutkimus has shown that around half of Finnish people are in favour of retaining compulsory Swedish language instruction in Finnish-language schools in Finland. The opinion poll, carried out for the Finnish-language evening tabloid newspaper Iltalehti, showed that only 12 per cent of respondents wanted to retain Swedish instruction in its current form. 40% supported keeping Swedish teaching if one allowed certain municipalities to have an exemption. 30% of those asked were prepared to see Swedish teaching become optional in the long term, whilst 20% were clearly opposed to obligatory Swedish teaching in Finnish-language schools.
Interestingly, support for Swedish teaching was strongest amongst the young. Those in the 15-24 age group were most positive towards Swedish; only one in ten were for the abolition of Swedish teaching. Greatest opposition was amongst those over 50 years old. This is important to note. Those over 50 most likely attended school before the reforms in Finland that turned our educational system into a comprehensive one. Before these reforms, Swedish was not compulsory and only the elite generally learnt the other national language at school. It thus seems that those who have actually been through compulsory Swedish teaching are less negatively disposed to it. This is surely positive news.
One assertion that one often hears about Swedish-speaking Finns is that we are dying out, caught in a relentless downwards spiral of decline, and that somehow inevitably we will eventually disappear. Whilst times may feel increasingly hard for the Swedish language in Finland, such assertions are false.
In fact, according to the latest statistics the population of Swedish-speakers in Finland is increasing. Today we are slightly more than 290 000 and according to a population prognosis, we will pass 300 000 in around 15 years time. This is clear from an article in Hufvudstadsbladet. The newspaper spoke with Fjalar Finnäs who has recently produced a statistical report on the situation of Swedish-speaking Finns. Finnäs is a professor of demography at Åbo akademi university.
Until 2005, it was true that we were in decline but today more Swedish-speakers are being born than are dying. The reason for the previous decline was that so many Swedish-speaking Finns emigrated to Sweden during the 1950s and 1960s. It’s well known that many Finns moved to Sweden during this period, but it is often overlooked that Swedish-speakers were massively over-represented amongst them. Some estimates state that as many as 25% of all the Finns that moved to Sweden during this period were Swedish-speaking (a much higher proportion than amongst Finland’s population).
Another reason why the population is today increasing is an increasing tendency amongst mixed language group couples to register their children as Swedish-speaking rather than Finnish-speaking.
As a proportion of the population, Swedish-speaking Finns have decreased to around 5,4% of the population. The number of Finnish-speaking Finns has also decreased as a percentage of Finland’s total population as the number of speakers of other languages has increased.
Swedish-speakers on average live longer, get divorced less often, have lower unemployment and retire early on sickness pensions less often than the Finnish-speaking population. This also helps the demographic situation of Swedish-speaking Finns.
Svenskfinland in English has been taking a little (okay, long) break of late. I have simply had too much to do with work and, if I am honest, I lost the urge to blog. But had I been blogging away as usual during the last six months or so, I fear that this blog would not have made happy reading.
The language climate in Finland is becoming ever less tolerant and the position of Swedish risks being so seriously maligned that a future in which it is possible to access public services in one’s mother tongue seems ever more bleak.
Amongst things that have happened in the last few months include the ongoing saga of the orientation of the city of Karleby (Kokkola) in Österbotten. Despite various bodies stating that for linguistic reasons it should be included in the Österbotten region with its state services located in Vasa, the Centre party (led by very vocal support from new Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi) continues to call for its incorporation into the district led by the unilingual Finnish-speaking city of Oulu/Uleåborg. The question seems to have become a matter of stubbornness amongst Centre party members who do not want to back-down even in the face of the Constitution which would seem to make any northern orientation illegal because of the linguistic consequences.
Maternity services at Ekenäs hospital in Western Nyland have closed down despite massive protests by local inhabitants and many, mainly Swedish-speaking, politicians. The municipality of Raseborg, where the hospital is located, has a majority of Swedish-speaking Finns and the hospital was the last in a Swedish-speaking majority area in southern Finland to offer maternity services. Residents of Raseborg will now be forced to travel to hospital in Lojo or Esbo to give birth, where Swedish-speaking service is often hard to obtain. Ludicrously, some Finnish-speaking members of the hospital board covering much of southern Finland suggested that Raseborg residents could travel to Borgå hospital if they wanted to be sure of Swedish service when they give birth – a journey of 153 km taking around 2 hours by car – hardly feasible for a mother entering labour!
The debate surrounding Swedish-language instruction in Finnish-speaking schools heated up during the last six months with debate on its future even making the main headlines in the Finnish-language media. The debate – even in the mainstream media outlets such as Yleisradio and Helsingin Sanomat - continues to use the pejorative term pakkoruotsi to describe the teaching of Swedish, meaning roughly ‘forced/compulsory Swedish’ – strangely one never hears of ‘forced mathematics’ or ‘forced biology’ classes. The debate gained prominence largely because the National Coalition Kokoomus party’s congress voted against the party leadership’s direction on a measure calling for the abandonment of Swedish as a compulsory school subject for Finnish-speakers. The Confederation of Finnish Industry (EK) also called for its abolishment. According to EK, schools ought to offer a broader range of languages instead of compulsory Swedish. This seems to suggest that the teaching of Swedish is an impediment to the learning of other languages, which is of course very strange logic indeed. Learning Swedish is naturally of no hindrance to also learning Russian, German, French, Chinese or any other language. Finland’s bilingualism ought to be a plus for Finnish industry’s competitiveness, especially when Finland is a Nordic country. EK’s reasoning was dealt a further blow when a survey showed that 80% of companies in the finance sector regarded the knowledge of Swedish as a decisive factor when choosing how to employ.
In a move that has the potential to cause the loss of life, reports of a 112 emergency call centre failing to be able to speak Swedish to a unilingual Swedish-speaking caller from Sibbo have again been in the media in recent weeks. Fortunately, the call was not concerning a life-threatening medical condition and the caller was eventually able to pass her phone to a neighbour who spoke good Finnish – but the example shows that authorities are not living up to their legal obligations in even the most serious areas of service-provision. What would have happened if it was a serious condition and an ambulance was not dispatched in time to save a life? Emergency messages to the public that are broadcast on television screens as text have also failed to appear in Swedish in two incidents recently, once concerning a severe fire in the largely Swedish-speaking town of Hangö.
In film-related news, Swedish subtitles have also been missing from many cinema film showings of late with cinema films blaming it on digitalisation. Apparently modern technology means that it’s not possible to do what was quite achievable before – namely to show subtitles in two languages at the same time. A debate has also blown up in the Swedish-speaking press surrounding the new Moomintroll film. The film will premier in Finnish and English with the Swedish-language version to follow only a few weeks later. Given that the Moomintrolls are probably the most famous Swedish-speaking Finns, concern has been raised that this is a sign of ever increasing Finnish-language cultural imperialism in Finland. An attempt to deny that the Swedish language is part of Finland’s culture – even with the now world-famous Moomintrolls, a Swedish-speaking creation.
It is not all bad news, the increasing indifference and lack of understanding for Swedish has raised concern even amongst prominent Finnish-speaking politicians. Elder statesmen Martti Ahtisaari (former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner) and Paavo Lipponen (former Prime Minister) have spoken in favour of Swedish. President Tarja Halonen has also expressed her concern for recent developments.
Pictured: Protesters against the closure of the maternity ward in Ekenäs on the steps of Parliament in Helsingfors/Helsinki.
Finally, a genuinely positive utterance from a member of the government regarding Swedish. Education minister Henna Virkkunen has suggested that the teaching of Swedish is started earlier in Finnish-speaking schools.
At the present time, most Finnish-speaking schools begin teaching Swedish in the seventh year of school, when pupils are already 13/14 years old. Virkkunen, in a newspaper interview with Keskisuomalainen, suggests that schools introduce the teaching of Swedish in the fifth year of school.
The Association of Teachers of Swedish has previously suggested that Finnish-speaking pupils start Swedish in year five and Virkkunen has now agreed that this is a sensible idea, accepting that languages are easiest learnt at younger ages. This is undoubtably true. The fifth year of school, whilst an improvement from today’s situation, is probably still later than ideal.
Swedish-speaking schools start teaching the Finnish language in the third year of school at the latest. Many start earlier than this.
Finland’s school curriculum mandates that all pupils must be taught “the other domestic language”, as the subject is officially known in schools, i.e. Swedish in Finnish-speaking schools, Finnish in Swedish-speaking schools.
Virkkunen is a member of the National Coalition (Kokoomus) party and her comments, coming in a Finnish-language newspaper and thus directed at a Finnish-speaking audience, should be welcomed warmly. Let’s hope she doesn’t restrict this matter to just words and enacts a curriculum reform at the earliest available opportunity.