The Swedish-speaking minority must rethink its position

I Helsinki Times har chefredaktör Alexis Kouors intervjuat Pär Stenbäck om svenskan ställning i Finland:

"Pär Stenbäck is an important political figure in multiple fields, both in Finland and internationally. He is a Swedish-speaking Finn and has long been active in promoting a bilingual and multicultural Finland.

Your book Vision och verklighet, en handbok i överlevnad för Svenskfinland (Vision and reality, a handbook of survival for Swedish Finland) published in 2003, raised a lot of attention about the Swedish minority's situation. What has happened since then?

I think my predictions were quite right. There was a paradigm shift around 2003-2004, in the sense that some Finnish-speakers started to look at Swedish as a lost language, a language of the past, a language that would not count for the future. There was also of course the aspect that immigration to Finland is now so large-scale that it's competing with the Swedish language, which is of course a rather ludicrous claim.

Immigrants speak so many different languages. What is emerging is cultural diversity, not a new cohesive group of immigrants united with one culture, one language and who can all be placed in one box.

We have had this discussion for many years about Swedish as a language both in the school and in society. For many it feels like it's a useless language and only English counts. I have often said that nowadays English does not constitute a language skill as such, but a necessary survival skill for everyone.

My prediction was that the Swedish-speaking minority must rethink its position and its futureand its future. Administrative reforms are destroying some of the traditional structures. The problem for Swedish speakers is that there is no specific territory anymore - or the territory is shrinking because of the internal movements and demographic shifts. But nevertheless this radical change in people's attitudes is real.

One should remember that the Swedish-speaking population does not have minority rights, but equal rights. But this is not a reality anymore. The specific rights of equal treatment are forgotten, because of the new - let's say - evolving minority situation in, for example, the overcrowded Helsinki region. It has not become more threatening in any way but it's just an attitude of indifference, so I have recommended a rethinking of our opposition in that respect. I see a need in the near future to negotiate minority rights.

So are you thinking that this notion of equal rights should be willingly abandoned?

Not willingly, but due to realities, one should realise that perhaps it would be more advantageous to have specific, well defined rights instead of these sweeping general rights saying that everybody's equal, but in reality you can't get service in your native language for rather important events in life, at the hospital or whatever. It remains to be seen whether minority rights would be really helpful in that. In some countries they are, in others, not. Unfortunately, I am pessimistic about the willingness of the majority to be generous in extending such rights, so we probably have to stick to the present legislation.

It is a similar situation with immigrants. One can grant very nice rights but in reality, if they're not implemented, if the attitudes are the wrong ones, then there is usually little preparation for that.

The immigrant community in
Finland should join forces with
the Swedish-speakers in fighting
for a multicultural society,
for tolerance and minority
rights, against the wave of
racist attitudes.

I just came back from visiting Canada where I went to study the situation with bilingualism there. Canada is a country where they are putting hundreds of millions into promoting bilingualism. And there the French-speaking minority is rather big but nevertheless it is a difficult concept. It is easy to speak about bilingualism, but to get functioning and popular bilingualism is harder. The movement, or the current, is always towards a demand for homogeneity - always towards integration, always towards assimilation. This is the melting pot, which we have seen in United States.

Are you saying that the evolutionary natural movement of the society is towards a homogenous one?

It seems so. The forces of the society are always working in that direction, to homogenise, because there is a fear among the majority that minorities mean danger. It is breaking the unity of the state. It is the old state concept of German origin - Hegel and those guys, philosophers, who said that the state must be very strong. The state must be homogenous. It is one idea that defines the state, and there is not room for diverting opinions. There is not room for different languages, cultures and so on.

But we have some examples - I don't know how functioning they are, like Canada, Switzerland and Belgium.

I've lived in Switzerland for five years. You should remember that there is no widespread bilingualism in Switzerland. The cantons, they all have their own linguistic profile and they read each other's languages at school. The French speakers seldom gain very high proficiency in German, and German speakers, the majority in the country, somehow achieve better proficiency in French. However, they still live their own lives in their different cantons and if you move to another canton you don't have automatic rights to get education in your own language. That is a question of arrangement.

It is also the same in Canada. There is the well-known story of the Finnish ice-hockey player who comes to Quebec to join the local team and says: Ok, I want my kid to go to the English school, because I don't know French. And the authorities said: No chance, as an immigrant you have to put your kid into a French school.

The US for example which has been an immigrant magnet, has come up with this diversity plan, this diversity lottery. They give away green cards just to keep the minorities in the balance. Do you think that Finland should try to apply balanced immigrant quotas?

As we can see, the Finnish immigration debate is very fresh and not very sophisticated, we are far from that still. We need to grapple with the basic attitudes first. By the way, I think the immigrant community in Finland should join forces with the Swedish-speakers in fighting for a multicultural society, for tolerance and minority rights, against the wave of racist attitudes.

If you think ahead about to 15 or 20 years from now, how do you see the situation of the Finnish-Swedes?

First of all, I think that the future of the Swedish minority and the Swedish language is to a large degree dependent on the Finnish-Swedes themselves. Because they have had resources and capacity through the centuries to maintain their position, their rights and interests well enough.

It is a self-sufficient minority in that sense, but there are signs of a certain polarization in the debate. The increasing individualism, free choice and movement may harm the community. You can pick the raisins from the cake; you can be a Swedish speaker and just go for your own career not caring about your own community.

The future will be mostly decided by the Swedish voting with their feet: will they keep together and be willing to stick to some common values and some common strategies or not?

Second, the greatest threat from the point of view of the Finnish majority, is that it couldn't care less. They think Swedish is problem that will disappear by itself like the languages of the immigrants of present day. So nobody is going to put a hundred million euros towards promoting bilingualism in this country.

What about the immigrant population? Do you think that they should be given more chances of also selecting Swedish language?

Well, first of all, it's up to the individuals. Some come here from Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. They should, of course, have the right to preserve their language skills. Many refugees are placed in Swedish-speaking areas, and they get a very good knowledge of Swedish.

Immigrants are well treated in these areas. It is well known that in Ostrobotnia for example they send recruiters abroad to get more workforces for their very flourishing small industries.

So one might say that the chance of getting favourable treatment or a positive attitude in your neighbourhood and with your employer, is higher today in a Swedish-speaking area. This has been shown in many opinion polls.

In Canada I learnt that young immigrants are eager to learn both national languages because they see the advantage of that. They see that they have a better freedom of movement. I think it is a wrong and very dangerous thinking when you hear arguments that immigrants should only quickly learn Finnish, because learning Swedish is putting immigrants in a trap.

Immigrants going into state or municipal administration, for example, or rising in the society would need to know Swedish. We have seen examples of that in other countries, that it's keeping them mainly a cheap labour. If you want to go into academic life, you should have an open attitude towards the two national languages.

And business life is the same. I have heard about one case where this became the obstacle for an immigrant who had been told that in Finland you could survive with Finnish only and then he came to a workplace where there was a need for Swedish. He had no chance.

Many immigrants are so skilled in learning languages. Many come here with three or four languages in their pocket because they come from multicultural surroundings and environments. A carpet seller in Isfahan can sell a carpet to me in Swedish if that's the need. He will learn it from tourists in two weeks. So, why not take that attitude, more oriental attitude, that business is business and many languages are good for your business.

Regarding this, because there is a real mismanagement of giving immigrants Finnish-language courses. Sometimes they have to wait for six months. Do you think that in that waiting period should they be put to a Swedish language course?

If you go to the Kansalaisopisto (Arbetarinstitut in Swedish) you probably would have an easier way in by choosing the Swedish language. In Helsinki, Luckan is arranging courses free of charge in Swedish for immigrants. And it will never be any nuisance to you; it will only be a benefit to you in your future career. I would recommend it and I think that we should also develop the Swedish alternative for immigrants who are willing. Swedish kindergartens are smaller and they are more intensive in the learning sense, because the groups are smaller. In some ways, the culture might be closer to many immigrants than the Finnish culture. It is a free choice for them. We are not saying that any immigrant should be monolingual in Swedish. We are saying they should become bilingual. Anybody going to a Swedish school will also learn good and idiomatic Finnish.

Are you disappointed by the fact that this Nordic dimension never really happened? Elisabeth Rehn selected American Hornets instead of Saab and now the Norwegians did the same.

Disappointment is the wrong word. I would say that it is a realistic outcome, in the sense that during the last fifty to seventy years the centrifugal forces have always won. There have been suggestions of having a Nordic Union. There have been suggestions of having a Nordic-defence union. Now Nordic defence cooperation is again on the table. In 1991 there was one small window open for a more united financial market before we started the process of joining the EU.

My thesis was about Nordic security politics - the idea of having a stronger defence community here. But always the outside forces, which are now starting to be at play again with the rising Russia - affected the outcome. We can never really achieve 100 per cent unity between the Nordic countries. Neither economic nor defence-wise. Culturally, yes."