While engaging in a truth and reconciliation process, the Government of Finland has actively overlooked Sámi rights and rights claims on a number of fronts. What is particularly striking is the way in which the state has, in the past few years, repeatedly disregarded its own basic legislative obligations toward the Sámi. The Sámi people’s right to their culture and language is constitutionally protected in Finland (Sec. 17.3). In addition, there is a legislative requirement for all authorities in Finland to consult the Sámi Parliament “on any far-reaching and significant measure which may have an immediate and specific impact on the status of the Sámi as an indigenous people and which concern the Sámi homeland,” including “exploration for, and exploitation of, mineral deposits and gold mining in the country’s land and water areas” (Act on the Sámi Parliament, 974/1995, Art. 9.3). Below, I discuss several major cases in which the state’s legislative and other measures have undermined and deteriorated, rather than upheld, Sámi rights and self-determination.
In 2016, the amended Act on Metsähallitus (234/2016), the state parks and forest enterprise, was adopted without the approval of the Sámi Parliament or the affected reindeer herders. A state enterprise, Metsähallitus governs the land use of over 90% of the traditional Sámi territories considered state land. An earlier draft of the act outlined specific regulations with regard to land use in the Sámi region. The so-called Sámi section consisted of two articles which would have provided Sámi culture and traditional livelihoods with a stronger protection vis-à-vis land use planning of “state” lands and waters, a deterioration ban of Sámi culture, and a requirement for Metsähallitus to conduct an impact assessment of the planned activities on Sámi culture and traditional livelihoods and mitigate the possible harms. The deterioration ban stipulated that Metsähallitus’ activities must be planned and carried out in a manner that does not significantly reduce Sámi people’s possibilities to practice their livelihoods or otherwise maintain and develop their culture. It further included a right to appeal for the Sámi Parliament and Skolt Sámi Village Council if Metsähallitus’ decisions had not considered the ban. The “Sámi section” was, however, dropped from the final version, notwithstanding the deep disapproval by Sámi and reindeer herding organizations. The removal was also strongly criticized by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, according to whom Finland violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ article 19 that stipulates Indigenous peoples’ right for a free, prior and informed consent before new laws and policies are enacted (Aikio 2015).
In 2017, Sámi and their relevant institutions were inadequately involved and consulted in the bilateral negotiations between Norway and Finland regarding the fishing agreement on the Deatnu River at the heart of Sámi region with a long history of traditional Sámi fisheries and fishing practices. Sámi representatives were invited into the negotiation teams but served only as token members. The final versions of the agreement were discussed behind closed doors without Sámi attendance and the government representatives of the two countries held several private meetings. The Sámi members appealed, to no avail, the process and procedures, noting that they did not have a bona fide opportunity to negotiate with the state representatives. Restricting Sámi traditional fisheries twice as much as recreational tourist fishing, the new agreement is considered threatening the survival of Sámi identity, language and culture in the Deatnu Valley, which are seen as inextricable from the river (Aikio et al. 2016; Kuokkanen 2020). The ongoing erosion of a unique fishing culture with its own traditional knowledge and skills will only intensify as the younger generation—many of whom are placed in the category of “tourists” in their own river because they live elsewhere for their studies or work—are deprived of a range of skills and knowledge related to various traditional fishing practices (Holmberg 2018).
Also in 2017, the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications requested the Finnish Transport Agency to carry out a feasibility study together with the Norwegian Railway Directory of the construction of a railway from Northern Finland to the coast of Norway. The proposal to build a €3 billion railway comes as China has expressed interest in enhancing its logistics networks to Europe through the Arctic region and building an “Arctic Silk Road” (Wen 2018). Establishing a railway route to the Arctic Ocean would connect Finland to the global transport system and thus make the country as “a node for Northern European passenger, freight and telecommunications traffic” (Finnish Transport Agency 2018, p. 6). Besides China, a number of Northern Finland municipalities see the initiative as the future of the region. Together, they market the venture as the “Arctic Corridor” and the “a rising cross-border economic area” centred on “growth through Arctic resources”, namely oil, gas and minerals as well as access to the Northern Sea Route.Footnote 9 This coincides with a trend over the past decade that has seen mining production doubling in Finland, with Northern and Eastern Finland as the most active regions. In 2018, Finland ranked on the top as the most mining friendly investment in the world, based on its geological wealth for minerals and metals as well as favourable policy environment, good infrastructure and the public sector support in providing many services for the mining industry (Benton 2018).
As the focus of international trade and production has shifted to Asia, the Arctic Railway initiative is seen as part of a much larger initiative to enhance Europe’s competitiveness in transport networks. Several alternative routes through Sápmi have been proposed and their feasibility assessed. Two of the route options in particular would have major negative impacts on reindeer herding, such as eliminating or fragmenting pastures, disruptions in herding routes, disturbances on grazing, harmful substance residues in reindeer fodder and accidents involving reindeer (Finnish Transport Agency 2018, p. 23). The brief section on “Sámi homelands” in the 2018 Finnish Transport Agency’s report is perfunctory, notwithstanding the fact that the impacts of the Arctic railway on Sámi culture and livelihoods would be enormous. The report suggests: “The Arctic Ocean Railway would impact the livelihoods and culture of the Sámi people. The extent of these impacts cannot be evaluated at this stage, except for the aforementioned impacts on reindeer husbandry” (Finnish Transport Agency 2018, p. 23).
The report discusses reindeer herding and the Sámi people separately, and reindeer herding is regarded only as an occupation focused on meat production. The connection between reindeer herding and Sámi culture is not strongly established. Yet when asked about the proposed railway, a young herder in the Anár region replied to a journalist, “I want to continue living from this land just as my ancestors have done for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is a way of life for us—it is not just a job” (cited in Wall 2019). Other herders say that a railway splitting the pastures already shrunken due to other competing land use would be no less than a death sentence to reindeer herding (Saijets 2018). The Sámi Parliament was not initially consulted in spite of the legislated duty to do so. The Parliament requested the Minister of Transport and Communications consultations on several occasions and it still took over 6 months before they were commenced (Suoninen 2017). The former president of the Sámi Parliament Tiina Sanila-Aikio considers it very problematic that the Sámi are not involved in such a massive and far-reaching initiative from the beginning. In her view, the planned Arctic Railway is the reason why the section protecting Sámi rights was dropped in the Metsähallitus Act in 2016. From the vantage point of the Finnish state, it would have given too strong a position for the Sámi regarding land use and planning in the Sámi region (Alajärvi 2016).
As with the 2017 Deatnu Agreement, the Sámi opposition to the Arctic Railway has been sweeping and includes the Sámi Parliaments, the Sámi Council, Sámi organizations and reindeer herding districts. The presidents of the three Sámi Parliaments went as far as to reach out to the Foreign Minister of Singapore, asking him to spearhead Sámi and Indigenous rights at the Arctic Council where Singapore has an observer status (Holmestrand and Idivuoma 2017). In September 2018, a protest called the Red Line was organized in Sámi regions Vuohčču and Anár in coalition with Sámi and other Indigenous activists, youth, reindeer herders, and Greenpeace. In the event, a red line of people and banners was drawn along the proposed railway route to oppose the construction without the free, prior and informed consent of the Sámi people (Suoninen 2018). The Sámi Parliamentary Council issued a statement according to which the Sámi have not been adequately consulted or their views taken account of in the Arctic Railway planning (Sámi parlamentáralaš ráđđi 2018).
The most recent blow to the state’s already deficient consultation practices took place in March 2019, when the 2011 Mining Act of Finland was amended to make it easier for mining companies to apply for an initial permit without an environmental impact assessment. Amended in a hasty manner, the Sámi Parliament was this time not asked for their input at all (Paltto 2019). Various UN bodies have, for several years, criticized the Nordic countries for their inadequate protection of the Sámi people’s right to their lands and traditional livelihoods, lack of meaningful consultation and failure to obtain their free, prior and informed consent. The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, for example, has urged Finland to uphold international norms and its own laws and constitutional obligations toward the Sámi people (CERD 2012; CERD 2017; Hirvasvuopio 2016).
Another major conflict that has deteriorated Sámi confidence in the state’s intentions is the dispute over legal Sámi definition in Finland. The conflict originates from the proposed 1990 Sámi Act, discussed in the next section, and the consequent 1995 Act on the Sámi Parliament. This protracted conflict involves, among others, the state failing to comply with and unlawfully interfering the Sámi people’s right to determine their identity and membership as part of their right to self-determination, as stipulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.Footnote 10 Since 2015, the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland has been approving individuals into the Sámi electoral roll to the elections of the Sámi Parliament against the will of and decisions by Sámi political bodies. Finland was admonished on these grounds by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019 for violating the rights of the Sámi people (Human Rights Committee 2019).
The current political and legislative climate in which the Government of Finland seeks reconciliation with the Sámi makes many Sámi deeply suspicious of the sincerity of the government’s intentions. Rather than rectifying the settler colonial logic of elimination of the Sámi, it appears to be continuing—if not intensifying—this logic through legislative processes and destructive infrastructure initiatives. Notwithstanding strong support in principle for the reconciliation process (Juuso 2018), many Sámi are uncertain whether they will participate in the TRC, concerned that it may serve as a means to gain Sámi approval for the various development projects while forgiving the state for its past wrongs. Others surmise that Finland has embarked on the TRC process to consolidate its international reputation as a democratic country respecting human and Indigenous rights—in the face of repression at the home front.Footnote 11 One Sámi participant in the pre-TRC hearings reflected:
There are big questions like the [amendment of] the Act on the Sámi Parliament and the Arctic Railway, before we can decide about this [TRC]. It says a lot about state intentions. A TRC process requires trust which we do not have much. In my view, the Arctic Railway is a big dilemma; that [the former prime minister] Sipilä has approved it while the objective of this [TRC] process is to put an end to colonialism. It’s totally crazy to seek a railway through our lands and at the same time we need to start reconciling. I do not know what is the biggest threat at the moment, is it that the state seeks reconciliation? So that in the future, if something goes wrong with the Sámi, they can say, “but we have reconciled and apologized.” (cited in Juuso 2018, p. 22).
As scholars have noted, exclusion and inclusion serve as twin strategies of settler colonialism, intended to eliminate, incorporate or suppress Indigenous people “to the settler sovereign order” (Macoun and Strakosch 2013, p. 429). Working in tandem, they confine and restrict political resistance, effectively co-opting opposition and “immoderate” demands.
In Finland, there is a pattern of state co-optation of “excessive” requests on behalf of the Sámi. In the early 1970s at the height of the global civil rights movement, there was a desire to establish a national Sámi organization in Finland especially among the generation of young, educated Sámi. The growing demands of the Sámi movement and the pressure it created propelled the state into action to solve the “Sámi question” by containing it. The strategy of inclusion was to establish an assembly called the Sámi Delegation, the predecessor of the Sámi Parliament, in 1972. Looking back, the swiftness into action appears unusual in Finland’s track record of neglect and general protracted conduct vis-à-vis Sámi affairs. One can only speculate that it was a lesser bad of the two options on the table, the other being a Sámi NGO at the national level (Lehtola 2005). The legal position of the Sámi Delegation was left ambiguous; it was neither an ordinary state authority nor an organization subject to private law (Myntti 2000). Through inclusion and incorporation, the Sámi interests were effectively contained and channeled away from their priorities toward a less antagonistic “solution” (cf. Strakosch 2015, p. 98).
There is a blurred line between inclusion and exclusion, but both are powerful colonizing practices. Inclusion, not to be mistaken either for Indigenous decolonization or for self-determination, is an effective mechanism of Indigenous domestication, and policy-making is one of its key sites. The critical analysis of Indigenous domestication through policy-making has largely focused on the past. Policy-making, however, continues to serve as a settler colonial strategy in contemporary settings as a way of asserting settler sovereignty and jurisdiction (Strakosch 2015).
Looking at Finland’s tacit Sámi policy and its explicit legislative action in the past decade, it is not difficult to view state engagement in a truth and reconciliation process as part of the continuum in the settler colonial logic of elimination. There has been no court challenge obliging the government to establish a TRC. Nor has there been a rupture in policy-making and administrative practices that would signal the beginning of a new era and building greater trust among the Sámi toward the state. Particularly the process of leading to the amended Metsähallitus Act, a prime example of the twin approach of inclusion and exclusion, it also represents the classic Finnish ad hoc policy-making on Sámi issues. If it is true, as the former president of the Sámi Parliament Sanila-Aikio suggests, that the Sámi rights section was dropped from the 2016 Metsähallitus Act in order to pave way for the Arctic railway, there is very little hope for the Sámi in Finland in the reconciliation process with the state beyond becoming another example of channeling the Sámi away from their priorities toward more acceptable structures and outcomes.
In the same way it has happened in other settler colonial contexts such as Canada, the TRC in Finland may end up providing support for state objectives of closure, legitimating its sovereignty and official narrative of past wrongs rather than meeting goals and expectations established and articulated by the Sámi: land and resource rights, legislation, Sámi history in Finland, living conditions in Sápmi, boarding school experiences and assimilation.
Where the proposed TRC in Finland radically departs, however, from many of its counterparts is that the draft mandate negotiated between the government and the Sámi Parliament explicitly proposes to examine and address contemporary injustices and harms and specifically, to commit to structural change. Whether and how this will take place is to be seen. If we take the recent statement by the Minister of Interior as an any indication, there is nevertheless a tendency on the government side to focus on the past. In her view, the objective of the TRC is to examine the state responsibility of historical wrongs and through a dialogue, carve a path toward reconciliation (Wesslin and Rasmus 2019). In the last section of the article, I consider the prospects of structural reconciliation in Finland, and its chances to disrupt its “temporal narrative of slow progress away from colonization” (Macoun and Strakosch 2013, p. 428).