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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?
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.
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.
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.
Greens in Sibbo (Sipoo) will fight this autumn’s municipal election as an independent association according to a report from Radio Vega Östnyland. Most Green activists in Sibbo have cut their link to the national party because of the Greens’ government ministers stance on the annexation of south west Sibbo by Helsinki. When the matter came up in the government, the Green’s ministers supported Helsinki’s forced take-over of an area of south west Sibbo. This was passed in government by a vote of 8-4. The annexation will occur on 1 January 2009. Previously, around 95% of Sibbo’s electorate had voted against the proposal in a referendum organised by the municipal council. The decisions by both the government and later the high court of administration in favour of Helsinki have been seen by many as an attack against municipal democracy and as a victory of the large over the small. In many letters to newspapers, the annexation has been likened to rape.
After the decision, the Greens lost many members in Sibbo who resigned in protest. The same fate also affected Kokoomus (who are the second largest party in Sibbo’s local council), whose government ministers also all supported Helsinki’s forced annexation. The Greens now face a tough municipal election in Sibbo, with 3 of their 4 councillors stating they will not stand for reelection.
Currently, the Swedish peoples party (Sfp) has 20 mandates in Sibbo. The national coalition party Kokoomus have 10. SDP hold 6, the Greens currently have 4 and Centre has 3 councillors.
The image is from one of the several protests against Helsinki’s forced annexation of south west Sibbo that occurred during 2007.
The Swedish Peoples’ Party (Sfp) has set a goal of increasing its number of votes by at least one thousand in the autumn’s municipal elections (when compared to those of 4 years ago).
Sfp is hoping it can offer 1 500 candidates of which half should be women and with an increased number of young people and recent immigrants to Finland than in its previous election campaigns.
According to party chairman Stefan Wallin, this year’s election will be particularly challenging for Sfp as many municipalities are merging creating an unpredictable and new dynamic in many localities.
Some municipalities that are merging with Finnish language dominated neighbours will present a particular challenge for Sfp with the number of Swedish speakers decreasing as a proportion. It will be vital for Sfp to mobilise its electorate to enable Swedish speakers to maintain their representation in municipal councils and governments at the same level.
Sfp has announced that its election theme will be fairness and equality. According to Sfp, individuals must have the right to be treated equally and fairly by all authorities regardless of their background or linguistic group. Municipalities should also be treated fairly by the state, which appears to be a clear reference to the Sibbo drama where the views of Sibbo’s inhabitants were overridden by Helsinki and the central government.
UPDATE Wednesday 16.27
It seems the association for Fair Trade which also uses the term Fairness in its campaigning is unhappy with Sfp’s usage of the same term.
Sfp has designed a campaign logo, a Fairness label/stamp design. Party secretary Ulla Achrén said that Sfp would be a party of fairness, with candidates standing for fairness and for policies of fairness.
Janne Sivonen who is the communications director at Association of the Advancement of Fair Trade in Finland was disappointed at this news, he told Svensk presstjänst: “This is certainly to mislead consumers. The ‘Fair Trade mark’ is a registered trademark in Europe and a guarantee that a product meets international fair trade criteria. Sfp has not asked us for permission to use the slogan. We will be discussing this matter with them.”