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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 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.”