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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.
The old phrase seems to be still accurate. Karleby’s future as part of Österbotten seems to have been put into doubt by the Centre party.
The city of Karleby (Kokkola), for centuries an intrinsic part of the Swedish-speaking part of Finland, has voted to cooperate in a northerly direction with the Oulu region in the future. The alternative southern direction towards Jakobstad and Vasa was defeated.
The vote went on the smallest possible margin, 6 to 5. The representatives of the Social Democrats, Left Alliance, Christian Democrats and Swedish People’s Party all voted for an orientation southwards.
All 5 Centre party delegates voted for a northern orientation. They were joined somewhat last minute by the single National coalition party – Kokoomus representative (ironically, another party that has made recent noises that it wants to ‘represent’ also Swedish-speakers). This will mean it will likely be practically impossible for Swedish-speakers in Karleby to receive services in Swedish from national authorities covering the Oulu region – which lacks any other municipality with Swedish as an official language. It also breaks the historical links Karleby has always had with the rest of Österbotten.
This orientation makes a mockery of the claims by the recently founded Swedish-speaking district of the Centre party that Centre is interested in representing the interests of Swedish speakers in Finland. It underlines the real reality; they are happy to get Swedish-speaking votes but rather less willing to do anything for Swedish-speaking voters.