A debate over Indigenous issues has empowered the country’s nativist right ahead of a critical election.
To the rest of the world, Finland is often held up as a beacon of progressivism. Various international indices have ranked it among the world’s most stable, best governed, least corrupt, and most socially progressive countries on earth. But the parliamentary antics surrounding recent efforts to reform the country’s Indigenous law are likely to shatter any illusions that Finland is either well-governed or progressive.
The Indigenous Sámi people are native to Arctic Europe and number approximately 80,000 across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In Finland, they are represented by a constitutionally recognized Indigenous assembly known as the Sámi Parliament. Working with the national Finnish parliament, the self-governing body has the power to propose and consult on legislation that affects Indigenous cultural practices in the country, though it does not have veto power over these measures.
Or—at least it is supposed to be self-governing. Sámi visions for their parliament were diluted in negotiations to create the body in the 1990s. And since 2011, the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court—which includes no Sámi members—has also repeatedly overruled the Sámi Parliament’s decisions on who should be eligible to vote in elections to the body. In practical terms, this means the court has decided who in Finland can be considered Indigenous—admitting claimants who many Sámi say have a spurious connection to their community.
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Last year, the United Nations ruled that those legal verdicts were in violation of international law because they deprived Finland’s Sámi community of the right to self-determination. The U.N. opinion put Finland’s international reputation at risk and supercharged efforts within the country to reform the Sámi Parliament Act, the law that governs the body.
Even before the U.N. ruling, reforms to clarify who is eligible to vote in Sámi elections and their consultative rights had become a central concern of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who called updates to the Sámi Parliament Act “one of the most important human rights issues facing Finland.” Both in her government’s 2019 platform and during a visit to the Sámi capital of Inari in June last year, she promised to see the act reformed. And in November 2022, with limited time left in her legislative term, Marin even forced a draft reform bill to parliament over the objections of her coalition partners—contravening long-held norms in Finnish politics that coalition governments only act with unanimity.
But in the months since, the reforms have become the center of a vicious culture war, pitting the tiny Sámi Indigenous community and its allies against the forces of Finland’s rural and reactionary right. Marin’s attempt at reform fell victim to this conflict—stymied last month by an alliance between her conservative coalition partners and critics within her own party, who deployed political chicanery and strategic absences to kill the bill in committee.
It was a personal embarrassment for Marin, who could not maintain the cohesion within her party necessary to pass a key piece of legislation and who now faces an uphill battle to win reelection in an April 2 vote that is seeing a resurgence of Finland’s nativist far right. It was also an escalation of a long-simmering conflict that may come to dominate the agenda of Finland’s next government.
Finland’s Sámi community is the smallest of the three Nordic countries, numbering around 10,000 people. They have lived for millennia across a broad region of Arctic Finland known as Lapland. Finnish colonization of Lapland began in the 16th century, and Sámi were quickly outnumbered in many of their own communities by Finnish settlers known as Laplanders. To survive the rugged terrain, Laplanders adopted many of the livelihoods that defined Sámi culture, such as hunting, fishing, foresting, and reindeer herding.
For centuries, colonial governments forced discriminatory and assimilationist policies upon Sámi. In church- and state-run boarding schools, Sámi children were prevented from using their native language, while Sámi communities were often forcibly relocated for the construction of dams and reservoirs. Politically, Sámi had little recourse—a tiny minority in their own homeland, they were subject to the whims of colonial governments.
That began to change in the 1990s. Amid a growing international push for Indigenous rights, Sámi activists lobbied Helsinki to form the Sámi Parliament and create an autonomous Indigenous government for their community. The campaign was immediately met with strong objections from Laplanders, who saw any advancement of Indigenous rights as an infringement on their own.
In 1995, the Finnish government succeeded in passing the Sámi Parliament Act, which created the Sámi Parliament and formalized its consultative role in Finland. But in the almost 30 years since, it’s become clear that the law was deeply tainted by compromise with the Laplander majority, who occupied the steps of parliament to oppose special rights for their Sámi neighbors.
The act provides two ways for a person to define themselves as Sámi. The first is a connection, within three generations, to someone who spoke a Sámi language as their first language. Other Nordic countries use this definition to delineate their Sámi communities, and Sámi leaders say it is the most accurate.
But the act also allows for a second definition of Sámi identity known as the “Laplander criteria.” This makes eligible for Sámi status anyone with an ancestor who practiced a rural livelihood such as hunting, foresting, or fishing in Lapland, as registered in records going back to the 16th century.
Hannele Pokka was Finland’s justice minister when the Sámi Parliament act was drafted and today serves as a member of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She told Foreign Policy that the Laplander criteria definition was written to satisfy a Laplander constituency that wanted the same legal protections for their historical cultural practices as those afforded to the Indigenous group.
The Laplanders were animated by a fierce opposition to exclusive rights for Sámi—in particular, fears that the Sámi Parliament would gain veto rights over unwanted economic development projects in Lapland. In recent years, Sámi territory has been increasingly targeted for logging, mining, and green energy projects, often over the objections of Sámi leadership.
“The people who were against this act … wanted to be some kind of original Lappish people who have [their own] rights,” Pokka said.
But after the creation of the Sámi Parliament, that strategy changed. “I met these people, who were protesting on the stairs of Parliament House in 1995 … opposing Sámi rights,” said Kukka Ranta, a Finnish doctoral researcher and author who has written extensively on Finnish-Sámi relations. After the parliament was created, she said, “these very same people tried to get access to the Sámi Parliament.”
In the almost three decades since the body was created, these Laplander groups have succeeded in muddying the waters of Sámi identity itself (in the eyes of the Finnish majority, at least—Sámi themselves have little doubts about who qualifies as Sámi). Since 2011, with the help of the Supreme Court decisions, the groups have gained voting rights to the Sámi Parliament, electing members who oppose efforts to expand Sámi land rights and contain private developments in their Arctic territory.
Many Sámi fear that, without reforming the act, their own institutions may become captured by forces opposed to the traditional Sámi way of life. “It could be that the Sámi have to start protesting [their] own parliament and claiming that it doesn’t represent the Sámi view anymore,” said Petra Laiti, a Sámi youth activist from Inari. “If that happens, that’s going to be a whole mess of a situation.”
Marin’s reforms would have strengthened requirements for resource companies and the Finnish government to consult with the Sámi Parliament on projects in Lapland. It would have also removed the Laplander criteria. Some critics went so far as to call the latter proposal an attempt at ethnic cleansing.
This combination of targets ultimately made for a powerful alliance between reactionary rural Laplander groups and the landed interests of Finland’s north. Both are represented largely by the Centre Party—the coalition partner of Marin’s Social Democrats, which threw up the biggest roadblocks to reform. Ultimately, however, it was members of Marin’s own party with connections to Laplander groups and industrial interests who conspired to ensure the bill’s failure.
The outcome leaves the Sámi community and its allies within Marin’s coalition in a tenuous position. The Sámi Parliament has moved to eject Laplander voters admitted by the Supreme Court before its own election in the fall. But it’s not yet clear whether that decision will also be challenged in court.
Marin and the Social Democratic Party still have the support of many Sámi activists, but they appear poised to lose power in this Sunday’s election. Few politicians have felt the need to comment on the failure of a reformed Sámi Parliament Act on the campaign trail, focusing instead on climate change, immigration, and NATO membership. Polls have recorded surging support for Finland’s nativist party and others in the center-right.
Many Sámi say they have little choice but to continue fighting for reform to the Sámi Parliament Act. But it’s anyone’s guess who will be sitting opposite them at the negotiating table after Sunday’s election. Finland’s debate over Sámi issues has unleashed a community vocally opposed to progress on Indigenous issues—and may well push the whole country further to the right.