Finland to set up Truth Commission for the Sami people

The Sami people have lived since early times in the vast northern territories of  Scandinavia, where some still make a living from herding reindeer and from fishing. Like the indigenous people of Canada and other big democracies, the Sami have been victim of  violent assimilation campaigns. In Finland, a truth commission is being set up to shed light on this dark past.

Finland to set up Truth Commission for the Sami people©Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät
The Sami Parliament (pictured) which sits in Inari (Northern Finland) has initiated the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
5 min 39Approximate reading time

They are the last great indigenous people in Europe, and they are defending their rights. Considered as one of the first peoples, they represent a tourist attraction for many visitors who come for snowshoeing, the Northern Lights and Santa Claus's villages. The Sami - often referred to as "Lapps", a derogatory term meaning "ragged" in Swedish - are an indigenous people of 80,000 to 100,000 people spread over the most virgin territories of four countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia - mainly the Kola peninsula). But the Sami have been and remain discriminated against and they demand recognition, apology and reparation from the States. Norway has set an example, establishing in 2017 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose work is ongoing. In Sweden, the project is in the making. Russia is lagging behind. It seems likely that the Finnish Sami will have their Truth and Reconciliation Commission before the end of the year.

Canada was a source of inspiration and encouragement for them, as Professor Jean-Pierre Massias pointed out at the summer university organized in France in July by the Institut francophone pour la justice et la démocratie on the theme “indigenous peoples and transitional justice”. Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, travelled to Inari, capital of the Finnish Sami people, in February 2018 to share the experience in her country. It has many similarities, since it is not about managing a transition from war to peace or from dictatorship to democracy, but about recognizing and stopping serious violations in a modern state, including forced boarding school internments, dispossession of land and cultural rights, rape and many forms of individual or collective discrimination against citizens historically considered to be second-class.

Tuomas Aslak Juuso
Tuomas Aslak Juuso, Vice-President of the Sami Parliament.

Tuomas Aslak Juuso, Vice-President of the Sami Parliament of Finland, participated in the negotiations for the establishment of this truth commission. He says: “I think the Canadian example has triggered political will among Sami representatives. It was the crucial factor for us to take the leap and believe in this kind of process. The South African model is not very relevant for us, in a country that is quite peaceful. Basically, some of the basics human are secured for the Sami people, which is of course different from South Africa [during the Apartheid era].” The initial proposal came from the Sami Parliament, which has existed in Finland since 1974 but has only been recognized by the Constitution since 1995. It is based in Inari.

Building a stronger society

Tuomas Aslak Juuso, who himself was a reindeer herder before becoming an activist and entering politics, describes a slow and only recent awareness of their rights by the Sami people. He says complaints have only been coming before the courts for less than ten years. So why now? “I wonder about that,” he says. “Information has become more accessible, our people have better knowledge of their rights, a lot of NGOs have come from abroad... and people are starting to use that.”

In Helsinki as in Inani, there does not seem to be any desire to work in a hurry. Negotiations for the establishment of the truth commission have been ongoing for more than four years. “It is about building a bridge between two peoples,” says the Deputy Speaker of the Sami Parliament. “Today, even in a modern democratic society, it is difficult to build up understanding. The minority is always in a different position and its message is drowned out by the majority society knowledge and discussion in the media, etc. It is about creating a tool for communication between two peoples. It is not only about better respecting rights and identifying what are the crisis points, it is a tool for the government to build up a strong relationship with the people in order to have a strong society. When you don’t have conflicts, you have of course a much better society.”

Frank consultations

Last year, the Prime Minister’s Office appointed an expert, who conducted consultations with the Sami community in their territories from 2 May to 29 June 2018. A budget of €1.5 million has been adopted by the Finnish Parliament for 2019 to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The official announcement of its creation is expected soon.

“It will be a political decision, not a law, that allocates funds for this commission, and it will most likely be under the responsibility of the Justice Ministry,” says Tuomas Aslak Juuso. The commission will operate on a voluntary basis. It will have access to State archives and may interview former officials, but it will not be able to force them to testify. And the truth component of the commission will undoubtedly prevail over reconciliation, if its commissioners follow the report published at the end of the consultations.

The government had to change its narrative along the way, with many Sami vehemently rejecting the idea that it could be first a reconciliation process. The Sami want the facts to be established first. “An apology from the government to the indigenous Sami people possibly made during or after the process is not expected per se, if the intention is merely to offer it as a so-called symbolic gesture without any concrete content,” the report warns with much transparency. The comments of the Sami interviewed during the consultations – transcribed while preserving their anonymity – are not watered down. “Could it be changed to just be an awareness commission, forgetting reconciliation,” asked one. “I know the old people in our area and, for sure, for these old people this is like the last violation.”

“The Sami people has been eliminated”

One of the issues particularly raised during the consultations was the experiences of boarding schools and the resultant loss of language and culture, says the report. But one of the biggest issues for this traditionally nomadic people is territory, as expressed by one of the people consulted. “Sami area is the Sami area, but the Finns interpret it such that a Sami area is an area in which there are points where Samis live here and there. For example, the Act on Forest Administration, which is based on the fact that everything, the whole region is state owned land, but there are just a few areas where there are Sami dwellings. And such an interpretation has eaten away the foundation of the entire Sami people. The Sami people has been eliminated. In every way.”

The mandate of the commission is expected to go back to Finland’s independence in 1917 from the former colonial power Russia. For the Sami, the writing and recognition of their history is another key demand, as explained by one of those consulted in 2018: “It’s as if our history has been deleted because, when we go to a museum, there are rock paintings but it does not say that they are by the Sami. Then again, the Finns have archaeology and it’s said that they were Finnish, but the Sami are like sparrows that have just landed here. There’s nothing, history on a level of education and science has been taken from us.”

No transnational commission

The issue is both national and transnational for the Sami, some of whose leaders would have liked a truth commission common to their entire territory. A Sami Council exists, which includes representatives of the four countries in which they live. But for States, this would have been tantamount to encouraging the Sami people’s recurrent autonomist tendencies. In addition, the Norwegian Truth Commission is dealing with violations committed against both the Sami and a second minority of Finnish origin, the Kven. Official contacts are planned, however, between the Norwegian and Finnish commissions on issues and violations that have a cross-border dimension.

A major challenge for the Finnish commission, Tuomas Aslak Juuso predicts, will be to communicate its proposals in a form that is “acceptable and understandable” to Finnish society and the Helsinki Parliament, without which they will not work. Another major challenge will be, according to him, to “get the people share their stories in such a way that the Commissioners have access to the truth in a complete and understandable way”. The Sami of Finland speak three different languages, two of which have a small number of speakers, and therefore of translators. The future commission is expected to have five commissioners, three selected by the Sami institutions and two by the government. Its president, who has not yet been named, will have the heavy responsibility of building trust on both sides of society. Its detailed mandate will be made public with the official announcement of its creation, which is expected by the end of 2019.