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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
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.
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.
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.
An opinion survey ordered by the Swedish-speaking think tank ‘Magma’ has concluded that Swedish-speaking Finns are significantly more positive in their attitudes towards immigration than the Finnish-speaking population.
In January 2009, around 40% of Finnish-speakers questioned in an opinion poll answered that they had the same or partly the same opinion on the statement “an increase in the number of foreigners brings with it useful international influences”. When Magma’s survey asked Swedish-speakers the same question in September this year, 75% of respondents gave this answer.
It is interesting to speculate why Swedish-speakers are, on average, more positive towards immigrant groups. One theory is that Swedish-speakers, as a minority group, find it easier to empathise with other people who find themselves in a similar minority situation. After all, many Swedish-speakers have to make compromises when it comes to their language and habits in order to live their life in an increasingly Finnish-language dominated environment. This experience may cause Swedish-speakers to be more sympathetic towards the demands that ‘trying to fit in’ brings for immigrants. Some people also argue that the average Swedish-speaker is, on average, more international in his or her outlook than the the average Finnish-speaker. Swedish-speakers have often nurtured contacts with the outside world, especially the other Nordic countries, with a greater vivacity. Another argument is that there is a greater degree of community involvement amongst Swedish-speakers who have a more developed “association culture”. This may foster a greater degree of what is known in Swedish as medmänsklighet, roughly “solidarity with your fellow man” or “brotherliness”, amongst those living in Svenskfinland. Of course, all such theories come with their controversies, the stark difference in attitudes is, whatever the reason for them, highly interesting.
The youth organisation of the right-wing nationalist True Finns party held its autumn conference in Vasa over this weekend. One of the resolutions that conference delegates agreed upon was a demand that Swedish be abandoned as an official language of the country. According to the True Finns’ youth wing, a disproportionately high amount of taxation revenue is used to offer services in Swedish in comparison with how small an area Swedish is spoken in.
This intolerant attitude is perhaps to be expected from the True Finns and thus comes as no great surprise. It would be too much to expect them to ask, if Swedish is so awful, why so many Finnish-speaking Finns have moved to Swedish-speaking areas in the last half a century? However, the True Finn’s historical revisionist attitude (Swedish has been an established language in the parts of Finland that it is found for at least as long, and sometimes longer, than Finnish) prompts an interesting point – what would Finland be like if there had never been any Swedish-speaking Finns?
Well, Finland’s cultural scene would look very different. Some of the most famous and internationally renowned artists would never have existed. There would be no Moomintrolls, no Topelius and no Sibelius – and so, ironically, no Finlandia – which some anti-Swedish language activists periodically demand to be instated as the national anthem in place of the Runeberg’s Vårt land/Maamme Suomi. Indeed, the national poet Runeberg, who wrote in Swedish, would never have written his epic poem, Fänrik Ståls sänger, which has been heavily used to rouse national sentiment on many an occasion, for instance during the Winter War (it is from this work that the lyrics for the national anthem were taken).
Would Finland still be Finland now? Or would it have become Russified after a massive defeat in a Winter War without the leadership of Mannerheim? Indeed, would we have even gone so long as that before becoming a part of the Soviet Union. Who knows, without Mannerheim commanding the whites, maybe the reds already succeeded in fostering a socialist revolution as they won the civil war in 1918?
The Finnish economy would certainly look very different if Finland had never had any Swedish-speaking Finns. They’d likely be no Fazer, no Stockmann, no Ahlström, no Fiskars, no Abloy (today Assa Abloy), no Viking Line, no Kone. You’d probably not be able to get hold of a Nokia mobile phone, Nokia’s electronics department was set up by a Swedish-speaking Finn, Björn Westerlund.
Of course, if I wanted to really court controversy, I could argue that there would be no written Finnish language. The first work in written Finnish was Mikael Agricola’s translation of the Bible. Agricola was a Swedish-speaking priest from Pernå. Agricola is often hailed as the father of the Finnish language. Its mainstream breakthrough as a language of culture came at the hands of the (Swedish-speaking) romantic nationalist Elias Lönnrot. It was Lönnrot who compiled the Kalevala, the Finnish language’s national epic, a work quite fundamental in shaping many of the beliefs of what it means to be Finnish and that spurred the national awakening. Would no Lönnrot have meant no independence from Russia?
In short, without the Swedish-speaking Finns, Finland would not be the Finland we know it today.
And in post script, I should make it clear that without the Finnish-speaking Finns it would likewise not be the country it is today. Both language groups have helped build this country into what it is. Both fought for this country as Finnish patriots. Finland is the native home of all Finnish people, regardless of whether they speak Swedish or Finnish as their mother tongue. We should not forget our common past nor abandon our common destiny.
SFP Party Conference 2009 in Helsingfors
The Swedish People’s Party (SFP) held its party conference at Arcada in Helsingfors this weekend.
The issues that have been most picked up in the media can all be said to be encompassed as equality related:
- Leader Stefan Wallin condemned the True Finns fishing for votes in the undercurrent of racist attitudes its campaign for the EU parliamentary elections in June. SFP can be said to have one of the least hostile policies on immigration of the Finnish political parties.
- SFP voted to propose that women also be included in military service, to a far greater degree than today.
- Most controversially, SFP voted to support adoption rights for same-sex couples (of any children put up for adoption, not just the children on one of the partners as Finnish law has just been changed to allow). The party voted 108-83 in favour of this motion.
Whilst SFP’s position on all of these issues can be said to be steps in the right direction for equality and liberal thought, the pragmatist can put them into question by wondering to what degree they go along with what should be the party’s key aim: the winning of votes. After all, if SFP does not ensure support at elections, it won’t be in a position to speak out for liberal values to any extent at all. SFP must be careful not to forget its principal raison d’etre: the defence and safeguarding of the position of the Swedish-language in Finnish society. To be able to do this, it needs to unite the Swedish speaking electorate. They also form the party’s core voting bloc; risking alienating or splitting them is dangerous for the party’s future. Yet, some of these decisions, perhaps especially that on same-sex adoption risk just that. There is a serious risk that this decision will alienate a not insignificant core of conservative SFP supporters, particularly in Österbotten, an area where so-called ‘traditional’ religious values are still strong. Whilst I, and many in the liberal wing may support these recent policy decisions, they may run the risk of undermining the more important task of the party, safeguarding Swedish. Certainly, SFP may pick up extra votes from the other language group, for instance from Finnish-speakers appalled at the racism of the True Finns and seeing SFP as the only party to truly condemn them. But will these be enough to replace those votes lost from the party’s key electorate? I doubt it. And even if they are, they are unlikely to come from people who give as much importance to the protection of Swedish.
Time will tell. But I fear that in the current political climate, where Swedish is under threat more than at any point in the last twenty years, SFP can not afford to alienate its core supporters. It is time for the party to unite and concentrate on its key mission. I hope that’s the conclusion that this autumn’s special extraordinary conference will come to. It was announced this weekend as being a chance for SFP’s grassroots to involve themselves to an unprecedented degree in the party’s policy-making. A chance to shape the direction of the party for the next few years.