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One of the jobs of the new(ish) government is to preside over the reform of Finland’s municipal map. This is important: municipalities deliver around two thirds of the official services used by citizens, with the central authorities of the Finnish state responsible for the other third. Basic services such as social and health care, schooling, libraries, adult education, transport infrastructure and waste removal are amongst those provided at the municipal level. At the start of this year there were 336 municipalities in Finland. Of these, 30 were bilingual (12 with a Swedish-speaking majority, 18 with a Finnish-speaking majority), 3 municipalities in mainland Finland are unilingually Swedish (there are an additional 16 unilingually Swedish municipalities on the autonomous Åland islands). 287 municipalities are unilingually Finnish-speaking. Mainland Finland’s smallest municipality is Suomenniemi in South Karelia with a mere 804 residents, Helsinki is the largest with almost 590 000 inhabitants.
The reform’s aim is to make the provision of service more efficient. Many municipalities are struggling financially, especially under the burden of providing healthcare in society in which people live all the longer. The government has determined new larger municipalities should be formed based on natural “commuting” areas. It is likely that this will be required to be sufficiently larger in population than many existing municipalities and debate is raging across the land in various districts on which municipalities would make the best partners for merger. It is vital that the will of the inhabitants and language is also considered when this takes place. We have already seen ill-prepared reforms of the police and court districts in which ‘unnatural’ districts were created in disregard to existing regional ties, for instance the Swedish-majority province of Österbotten was divided artificially in the police district reform, with the effect of enforcing Finnish-majority districts on it. We have also seen the way the will of inhabitants (both Finnish and Swedish-speaking) of Sibbo/Sipoo were ignored when Helsinki decided it wished to annex the western part of the municipality. Sibbo is now suffering as with the loss of income and inhabitants Helsinki’s forced annexation caused, it is now unlikely that Sibbo will survive the new municipal reforms as an independent entity: indeed, it may even be split up, with bits of it being merged with three different municipalities – truly historical butchery.
It is time now for Swedish and bilingual municipalities to organise themselves so that where mergers are necessary, they consider the best solution for minting Swedish as a living language of administration in Finland, so that Swedish-speaking Finns can also access good quality services in their mother tongue in the future. There is a serious danger that traditional local rivalry between municipalities or head in the sand attitudes based on the misguided dream that this will all blow over will inhibit sensible solutions to be found, and municipalities will be forced into merging with less suitable partners by the central government.
Still, I can not help but think the whole basis of this reform is misguided and rushed. We should be thinking of a more sensible way of managing the services that are currently delivered by municipalities. In an age of expensive medical treatment, is it really sensible for the smallest level of government to have responsibility for the delivery of healthcare? Could we not look to other countries for a better model. For instance, Sweden still has two levels of local government: counties and municipalities. It is the larger counties that are responsible for the delivery of the larger scale services that can not efficiently be delivered at municipal level: for instance, healthcare and public transport. This would work well in Finland. Imagine a newly beefed up county council for the whole of Uusimaa/Nyland, it would easily be able to offer healthcare – and a more integrated public transport system. Municipalities could retain their local identities and still be responsible for a wide range of services such as schooling. There would be no need for most municipalities to have to consider abandoning years of history and local identity by entering into hastily arranged forced marriages.
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
Finland’s highest circulation newspaper, the Finnish-language Helsingin Sanomat (HS), has published an editorial in which it states that the concerns of Swedish-speaking Finns over their rights are justified.
HS states in its leader that the last few years have seen an increasingly tougher climate for Swedish in Finland, primarily as a result of three reasons; an increase in hateful views on Swedish-speakers and Swedish in Finland on a number of internet-based discussion sites, a new generation of politicians who often no longer speak Swedish fluently and a view amongst many politicians that larger institutional units are as effective as small ones. The paper names Helsinki’s recent forced annexation of a significant part of western Sibbo (Sipoo), the decision to close down the maternity ward at Ekenäs hospital, the reform of court districts, the reform of the police’s administrative districts, the attempt to get bilingual Karleby (Kokkola) to join the unilingual Oulu state administrative district against its city council’s will, and the recent proposal for bilingual schools in Esbo (Espoo) as examples of recent policy decisions that cause harm to Swedish-speakers’ rights. The newspaper states that these decisions show that the right to receive services in one’s mother tongue has been relegated to secondary issue when decisions are made.
HS’ editorial states that Swedish-speaking Finns can be a part of the reason behind the change in attitude towards Swedish in FInland. The leader column states that “Swedish-speaking Finns have had a defensive attitude towards their linguistic rights. This has strengthened an understanding amongst Finnish-speakers that Swedish-speakers want to isolate themselves and are inflexible.”
However, HS goes on to state that is is hard for persons belonging to a linguistic majority (i.e. Finnish-speakers) to understand how things seem for a minority group that are constantly concerned about their cultural identity and rights.
Helsingin Sanomat states that is is time for decision-makers to take the rights of Swedish-speaking Finns seriously. The paper underlines that Swedish-speaking Finns are as Finnish as Finnish-speaking Finns and notes that the cultural roots of Swedish-speakers in Finland go back as far as the start of Finnish history.
Helsingin Sanomat’s leader is a welcome contribution and hopefully will provide a welcome call to Finnish-speaking decision makers and civil society who may not even have noticed how recent actions have effected the Swedish-speaking population. For Finland’s bilingualism to work, it needs champions in Finnish-speaking society and amongst Finnish-speaking politicians. We Swedish-speakers can not make it work on our own.
At the same time, the fact that the issue has become so clearly visible even on the radar of the leader pages of Finland’s most influential newspaper reveals just how serious the language climate is right now. We must hope that there are Finnish-speaking politicians, including those in the government, who have read this article today and have realised that constitutional rights must be upheld in order to ensure our law-based society continues to develop hand in hand with the values of fairness.
The controversial radio presenter Kirsi Virtanen’s programme of 29 July has been reported to the Mass Media regulator.
In her programme of 29 July which was broadcast on the Finnish language channel Ylen Radio 1, Virtanen took up the theme of immigrants and immigration. The programme has caused a lot of debate and discussion in Swedish-speaking media in Finland as in the programme Virtanen stated that people from “foreign countries” are living in Eastern Helsinki, such as Somalians, Russians, Estonians, Turks – and Swedes.
She went on to state that it was ridiculous to criticise immigrants as having bad skills in Finnish so long as there are native Finns who don’t speak Finnish and don’t even want to teach their children Finnish. She said it was “hurtful” that there were Finns who didn’t learn Finnish and stated that Swedish-speaking parents who placed their children in Swedish-language day care should be “ashamed”.
Of course, Virtanen’s logic is aside from discriminative, factually inept. Finland has two national languages, Finnish and Swedish. Swedish is as much a language of Finland as the Finnish language, so it is quite right and proper that there are Finns to be found that speak Swedish and not Finnish, just as the opposite is also found (albeit in far greater numbers). It would be strange to think that two Swedish-speaking parents would choose to speak a language other than their native tongue to their children, even if they are both proficient in Finnish. And if their Finnish is not completely correct, it could be plain dangerous for the child’s future communication skills if they sought to teach it a language they themselves don’t master.
It would also do Virtanen no harm to note that the proportion of Swedish-speaking Finns who are proficient in Finnish is far, far higher than the proportion of Finnish-speaking Finns who are proficient in Swedish. She might also note that almost without exception, every Swedish-speaking Finn visiting an entirely Finnish-speaking place would seek service in Finnish (i.e. speak it in a shop etc), whereas Finnish-speaking Finns almost always speak Finnish wherever they are, even in places where Swedish is the absolute majority (or only) language.
Of course, I am sure Virtanen would say that those Finnish-speaking Finns who have, during the last decades, moved en masse to previously entirely Swedish-speaking areas should be ashamed for imposing their language on the local, native population? No, perhaps not. As, it seems to only be Swedish-speakers in Finland that are allowed to be disciminated against in the media without any action ever being taken. What absolutely is shameful is that this was broadcast on Yle and thus funded by the general public, Swedish-speaking Finns included.
Swedish-speaking Finns are becoming all the more bilingual. That’s according to the latest trend from the Finland-Swedish Barometer survey.
According to researcher Kjell Herberts at the Institute for Finland-Swedish Future Research, one can read this trend by comparing the latest barometer results with surveys done in the past. In 1950, 46% of Swedish-speaking Finns asked said that they had a strong command of both national languages. According to the most recent research, 82% of Swedish-speaking Finns are of the opinion that they have a strong command of Finnish as well as Swedish. (Although it is apparently hard to make a totally accurate comparison, as the questions were asked differently in 1950 as to more recent surveys, and the question does not necessarily imply that one should be fluent in Finnish to give a positive response).
According to Herberts, the situation for Swedish in Finland is made more difficult by those Swedish-speaking Finns who so easily and willingly switch to using Finnish when accessing services. According to Herberts, it is also the case that the more bilingual one becomes, the easier it is to abandon one’s own language. Herberts, however, does not believe that the existence of Swedish in Finland is threatened in at least the short term.
The latest barometer survey also shows that Swedish-speaking young people are significantly less interested in politics than their Finnish-speaking counterparts. 77% of Swedish-speaking youths said that they were either not at all interested or not especially interested in politics.
Our blue and white national flag celebrates its 90th anniversary today. The law determining the Finnish flag as the familiar blue cross on white was made on 29 May 1918. It is said that the blue represents the numerous lakes of our country whilst the white represents the snow in winter that blankets the landscape (an alternative, more controversial view, would say it represents the victory of the whites in the civil war). The cross design represents unity with the other Nordic countries.
My flag is flying high outside my house today, as it is outside homes, apartment blocks and on public buildings throughout the nation. It’s a symbol that represents all Finnish people.
And yet historically, it has been the role of an organisation called Suomalaisuuden liitto (Finskhetsförbundet – Finnish alliance) to give information on Finland’s flag to the public. This organisation is a Finnish extreme right nationalist group that has, in recent years, become yet more extreme. These days, under the chairmanship of the controversial Heikki Tala, the organisation campaigns for the elimination of Swedish in Finland. Even longing for a future where Åland is Finnish speaking. According to Suomalaisuuden liitto, there is a campaign to ‘Swedify’ Finland – apparently this is being carried out by us Swedish speakers with help from Sweden’s government (the suggestion is so self-evidently ludicrous it’s not even worth making further comment upon). In the past, the organisation received a grant from the state to fund its work in promoting our national flag. Finally, after many protests from politicians from both language groups, the parliament voted in 2002 to end this subsidy. This came after a scandal where it turned out Suomalaisuuden liitto was absolutely refusing to give any information on Finland’s flag in Swedish. The move to increasing extremism has been largely because of extreme right wingers taking over positions of power in the organisation. Even former chairman Martti Häikiö said that “the association has ended up in the hands of the mad fundamentalists”. Today, the organisation has slightly over 1000 members.
Why do I make this point? Still, on the morning of Independence Day (6 December) it is Suomalaisuuden liitto who has the honour of organising raising our national symbol, the flag, at Tähtitorninmäki – Observatorieberget in Helsinki. This is usually done in the presence of the President of the Republic. In my opinion it is time for this to end. A more unifying group should be chosen. Finland’s flag is a symbol of the entire Finnish people. To have a group of extremists who are openly intolerant against one group in society organising the raising of a flag that represents everyone is deeply inappropriate and offensive. The President of the Republic’s presence also affirms recognition that this group is somehow appropriate and representative. I think this December, in our 91st year of independence, and 90th with our national flag, it’s time to invite a more unifying group to organise the raising of our flag. Perhaps veterans from the wars, today’s military, representatives from cultural life (maybe from the Finnish, Swedish and Sami language groups together). The options are numerous. But certainly not a group that represents only the views of a very narrow and small xenophobic minority.
The Swedish Assembly of Finland, Folktinget, has officially reported the Finance Ministry to the Parliament’s Justice ombudsman. The reason for this is that the Finance Ministry requested the official opinion only in Finnish of 11 municipalities who have Swedish as their majority language. The opinions were requested regarding the proposal to close the Magistrate districts of Raseborg and Åboland.
Despite enquiries by the municipalities concerned, the ministry failed to send the documents in Swedish.
Folktinget considers that the Finance Ministry has broken the Language Act. According to the law, state authorities should communicate to a municipality using the municipality’s majority language.
The chair of Folktinget, Ulla-Maj Wideroos said “The Finance Ministry has broken the Language Act and furthermore done so in a matter that has great significance for the Swedish-speaking population. We can not accept such infringements of the law. It can not be accepted that authorities ignore the Language Act.”
The Finance Ministry’s documents were requesting official opinions of municipalities on the ministry’s proposal to close Raseborg magistrate and Åboland magistrate, both of which have Swedish as their majority language. According to the ministry’s proposal, the magistrate activities of these areas would be incorporated into respectively Esbo (Espoo) magistrate and Åbo (Turku) city and district magistrates – both of which would have Finnish as the majority language.
The Nordic Youth Council (UNR), the youth political organisation of the Nordic Council, has decided that it will allow the English language to be used when necessary in meetings. This goes against the official Nordic language policy which stipulates that the working languages are Swedish/Norwegian/Danish (which are mutually intelligible).
According to UNR, Nordic cooperation should be open to all individuals in the Nordic countries and not be an exclusive club for those that can speak a Scandinavian tongue.
UNRs president Lisbeth Sejer Götzsche said that she had come to the conclusion that speaking English on occasion would not make her any less Danish or Nordic. However, she pointed out it would be easier for UNR to operate in solely the Scandinavian languages if it received more support for interpretation.
It’s hard to understand why this decision is necessary. Finnish-speaking Finns, Icelanders, Greenlanders and the Faeroese all must study one of the mainland Scandinavian languages (in practice Swedish for Finnish-speaking Finns and Danish for the others) in school. UNR seems to be sending out a signal that says the education systems are failing to perform their roles. It also seems to be conceding and even collaborating with the English take-over of various domains which is damaging for the vitality of the Scandinavian languages. Of course, English is a global language and it’s convenient that we have such a tongue – afterall, this blog is written in it to reach out. But the Nordic Council and its youth wing are meant to be forums for the Nordic countries – it’s not an entity that encompasses the wider globe. English or any other non-Nordic language simply shouldn’t be necessary.
Picture is of the Nordic Youth Council’s members. Source: Nordbild/norden.org
Companies’ fear of language problems and extra inconvenience is the largest obstacle for the employment of foreign students and qualification-holders, not skin colour. That’s what they believe at the Finnish-language polytechnic in Kokkola/Karleby, according to the city’s Swedish-language daily Österbottningen (ÖB). The polytechnic has almost 300 foreign students of 29 different nationalities. There are 7 programmes taught in English within the technology, business economy and healthcare areas.
According to a survey, only 28% of foreign students get a practical vocational training place in Finland. Yet this is an obligatory part of the course for all who study for a degree at a polytechnic.
Foreign students can better prepare themselves by writing their CV according to the Finnish layout style. According to Hannele Teir, who is a department manager at Kokkola’s Finnish polytechnic, language is also a problem – but perhaps more for the companies than the students. All of his students have to study Finnish as an obligatory subject, however companies are often fearful of employing a practical trainee who they may be forced to speak English with when dealing with difficult matters that are hard for the trainee to understand in Finnish. The skin colour question can also not be totally ruled out. This seems to differ in the two major towns in northern Österbotten. In Teir’s experience there is a difference in attitude in Jakobstad, where they are used to dealing with refugees and foreigners, than that in Kokkola (Karleby).
Those companies in the Karleby (Kokkola) region that have taken foreign students as trainees have had good experiences, according to the Karleby Region Development Company KOSEK. KOSEK notes that there are also international companies which use English as their working language situated in the region.