Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Swedish Finn population can be divided into three distinct groupings, the Tornedalers, Finnish-speakers, and Swedish-speaking Finns. The Tornedalers have lived in the north of Sweden since before the advent of the Swedish state, whilst other Finnish populations result from migration occurring after the foundation of the modern Swedish state.
The Finnish language has been spoken in Sweden for a very long time. For approximately 600 years, up to 1809, Sweden and Finland were united under a common monarchy. During this period, there was active mobility amongst the population. As a result, large areas of Sweden were inhabited by both Swedish- and Finnish-speakers. However, the Finnish language almost completely fell into disuse during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Today, approximately 450,000 first- and second-generation Swedish Finns live in Sweden, of whom about half speak Finnish. The majority moved to Sweden after World War II. The peak for Finnish migration to Sweden came around 1970, and it has subsequently declined. Swedish Finns have for many years been a well-organized group in Sweden. One example is the Stockholm Finnish Association which was formed in the 1830s. Another is the Stockholm Finnish Federation, which celebrated its 105th jubilee in 1998. In 1957 the National Association of Finns in Sweden was formed, which today works, among other activities, for the establishment of activities in the Finnish language within all areas of interest for Swedish Finns.
Within the Swedish Finnish community, the Tornedalers deserve special comment. A Finnish-speaking settlement existed in the area around the Torne river during the Middle Ages. When Sweden ceded the eastern half of its kingdom to Russia in 1808–9, the Tornedalen area was effectively divided. Notwithstanding this, the Tornedalers on both sides of what is now the Swedish/Finnish frontier have preserved their language and their cultural heritage. The Tornedalers distinguish themselves from the Swedish majority population primarily by their language. The Tornedalers’ language, which was previously referred to as Tornedal-Finnish, is now called Meänkieli (‘our language’).The characteristic feature of Meänkieli is, among other things, that a number of Swedish words have been received into the otherwise Finnish vocabulary. The Tornedalers have their own distinctive culinary, architectural and craft traditions
Today, there are approximately 50,000 Tornedalers, most of whom live in the municipalities of Haparanda, Övertorneå and Pajala and also in parts of Kiruna and Gällivare. In recent years, Tornedalers have demonstrated a renewed determination to preserve and promote their distinct identity and culture. An expression of this is the formation in 1981of the Swedish Tornedalian Association – Tornionlaaksolaiset (STR-T). The association aims to protect the linguistic and cultural interests of these Tornedalers, for example by preparing educational material and a dictionary in Meänkieli in order to develop the written form of the language.
Since 1993, Meänkieli has been an obligatory teaching subject in those areas traditionally inhabited by the Tornedalers. In the same year, a Tornedaler Theatre was also established. With support from the Nordic Council of Ministers, municipalities in Swedish and Finnish Tornedalen regularly collaborate on educational and cultural activities to promote tourism and commercial activities in the region and to preserve the Tornedalers’ cultural heritage.
The Fourth Advisory Opinion, published in 2017, on Sweden’s obligations arising from the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities identified shortcomings in the area of minority language education and media provision. In particular, the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee found that implementation by municipalities and state authorities of the 210 Act on National Minorities and Minority Languages has been uneven. While it welcomed the fact that more municipalities have joined the Sámi, Finnish and Meänkieli administrative areas, the Advisory Committee expressed concern at the lack of minority language-speakers among staff in preschools, homes for the elderly and in local administration; this effectively curtailed protection of minority language rights. Nevertheless, the Advisory Committee noted that teacher-training in minority languages has been strengthened, specifying that training for teachers in Meänkieli is available at Umeå University.
A further issue concerns the small Finnic community called Kven. Kven are recognised as a minority in Norway but not in Sweden. They also speak Meänkieli, but because only Tornedalers hold national minority status in Sweden, Kven risk being left invisible with their rights not recognised – especially those living outside the Torne river region. The Kvenlands Association was created in order to seek recognition as an indigenous people.
Swedish-speaking Finns have lacked recognition as a national minority in the same way as their Finnish-speaking equivalents. While the Finnish-speakers were finally recognised as a national minority in 1999, Swedish-speaking Finns were not, despite having a distinct history, culture and literature. Often overlooked due to their common linguistic heritage with the Swedish majority, these Finns have been looking to assert their minority status in an official capacity within the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In May 2017, the Swedish-Finns moved one step closer to this goal with Swedish parliament voting in favour of investigating the issue further.
Updated April 2018.