International Perspective


Finland: A Balance Between Individual and Territorial Rights
















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Unlike Canada, Finland is a unitary state, not a federation. Administratively, the country comprises six provinces (lääni, in Finnish, län, in Swedish) and 20 regions, the latter being divided into 446 municipalities (communes). In turn, these municipalities break down into four categories: unilingual Finnish towns, unilingual Swedish towns, bilingual towns with a Finnish majority, and bilingual towns with a Swedish majority.

At the regional and local level, five of the six provinces (Southern Finland, Western Finland, Eastern Finland, Oulu, Lapland) simply represent the central government. As such, they are nothing more than decentralized administrative regions of the state and have no political autonomy; Åland province is the exception. The provinces are run by a governor, appointed for an eight-year term by the president of the Finnish republic.

The archipelago of Åland (first letter pronounced like the O in POST) has had considerable political autonomy since 1920; this status translates into a distinct government, a local parliament and its own administrative branch. Virtually all citizens of Åland speak "Swedish from Sweden" (Rikssvenska), rather than "Swedish from Finland" (Finlandssvenska).

The lack of provincial powers aside, Finland is a highly decentralized country where municipalities play an essential role, especially in terms of language. In fact, municipalities (and not the provinces) decide on their linguistic status according to Finnish law. In essence, the cornerstone of language rights in Finland lies with municipalities, whose linguistic status is determined by law ("Languages Act").

Languages in Finland

In 2017, Finland had roughly 5.5 million inhabitants, known as Finns, and two main linguistic groups: Ethnic Finns (also Fennophones or Finnophones—who speak Finnish) and Finland Swedes (also Swedophones—who speak Swedish). Finland's population is composed mostly of Finnish speakers (89.9%); Finland Swedes, a numerical minority, account for 5.4% of the population. Other minority languages in Finland include Saami (0.03%), Tsigane or Romani (0,2%), Russian (0,6%) and Tatar.

In legal terms, Swedish isn't considered a minority language in Finland. The Finnish state is officially bilingual and simply sees the Swedish-speaking population as smaller; indeed, both languages have equal status.

Finnish is a non-Indo-European language belonging to the Uralian family, which includes Saami, Estonian, Hungarian, etc.). For foreigners, Finnish might seem a relatively exotic language, because of its distinctiveness from other European languages. As for Swedish, it is Indo-European and derived from the Germanic family of languages (English, German, Dutch, etc.). Romanis, for their part, number roughly 13,000 nation-wide, but their greatest concentration is in the Finnish southland's larger cities. country's; their language, Romani—called Romani Mirits in Finland—is Indo-Iranian, but the actual number of speakers is unknown. All Romanis speak Finnish as a second language.

Finland's new constitution provides for two national languages: Finnish and Swedish. In legal terms, there aren't official languages, though both of these national languages play that role in reality. Again, from a legal standpoint, Swedish has the same status as Finnish, and only Saami, Russian, Tsigane, Tatar, etc. qualify as national minority languages. On that note, Saami has acquired a special status among minority languages.

Policies Governing Personal and Territorial Rights

Finnish legislation is original in that it protects languages according to both the principle of individual rights and the principle of territorial rights. Individual rights come into play for the operation of the central government in Helsinki (as for the federal government in Canada), whereas territorial rights predominate in municipalities where minority numbers (Swedish or Finnish) so warrant. To that end, administrative districts have been created with minorities in mind (Swedish or Finnish), and these districts can operate in one language when circumstances (laws) allow. This approach isn't widespread in Canada, but the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba is the best example: the city must be legally bilingual; the concept of municipal bilingualism also appears in the province of Quebec, where roughly a hundred towns and cities have to offer services in both English and French. But this is how Canada and Finland differ: the basic determinant of language rights in Finland stems from municipalities, whose status can be either bilingual or unilingual (Finnish or Swedish); thus, a bilingual municipality can have a Finnish majority or a Swedish majority.

To fully understand language laws in Finland, one has to refer to the rule of 6% and 8%, as described in the country's Languages Actof 2004. For example, if a minority makes up 8% or more of a municipality, official bilingualism becomes compulsory for all administrative, municipal and other government services. If the minority accounts for 6% or less of the population, the municipality loses its bilingual status. As a result, the minority has no official recognition other than with the central government. Canada does not apply the 6%-8% rule, opting instead for the "where numbers warrant" formula. Admittedly, the approach leaves room for interpretation. In addition, withdrawing a municipality's bilingual status would be unthinkable in Canada, because it would be swiftly challenged under the principle of vested rights.

In all, Finland has 446 municipalities (also "communes"), and these are divided into four categories: unilingual Finnish (89.4%); unilingual Swedish (0.6%), bilingual Finnish majority (4.7%), and bilingual Swedish majority (5.1%). A decree from the Council of State has declared there are 399 (89.4%) unilingual Finnish-majority municipalities, 23 (5.1%) bilingual Swedish-majority cities, 21 (4.7%) bilingual Finnish-majority cities, and three (0.6%) unilingual Swedish municipalities.

Unilingual Municipalities

In unilingual Finnish municipalities (89.4%), Swedophones (Finland Swedes) have no language rights, except for communications with the central government in Helsinki. The same rule stands for Ethnic Finns (Finnophones) in the country's three unilingual Swedish municipalities (0.6%). Swedish therefore has all the rights of a language that dominates all socio-economic contexts: postings, workplace language, labeling, commerce, banking, etc. We can also mention the 16 unilingual Swedish municipalities of the Åland Islands in this context.

Bilingual Municipalities

In bilingual Swedish-majority municipalities, integral bilingualism applies to everything from local government, transportation and business to radio, schools, labelling and workplace language. One unique feature: bilingual signs are compulsory, but Swedish is given prominence. In bilingual Finnish-majority municipalities, authorities apply a similar model, but more in favour of Finnish, of course; so, bilingual signage is again compulsory, but Finnish is more prominent.

The Åland Islands: A Unique Case

Institutional bilingualism does not apply to the autonomous province of Åland (an archipelago comprising some 6500 islands and covering 1527 square kilometers at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia south west of Finland); the province remains unilingual Swedish. This stems from an international treaty signed in 1920 between 10 countries and the League of Nations, guaranteeing the Åland archipelago's autonomy. On the strength of its highly privileged status, Åland is actually a sovereign state associated to Finland; the arrangement includes all the political, cultural and linguistic features one would expect in the circumstances.

Article 75 of the Finnish constitution sets out specific provisions for Åland province. In short, the province is legally unilingual Swedish at every level. Citizens who speak Finnish (the country's linguistic majority) have no language rights in Åland, other than being able to use Finnish when addressing the central government in Helsinki. The Finnish state thus shoulders the weight of institutionalized bilingualism while the province itself remains unilingual Swedish. What's more, Finland's Council of State must provide Swedish-language versions of regulations that apply to the province as well as Swedish-language training to central-government employees in Åland, because they must know Swedish. Åland therefore represents a very special case internationally: speakers of Finland's majority official language cannot exercise their language rights in the province. Authorities likely felt this was the price to pay to safeguard this small, insular, Swedophone community with closed linguistic borders.

For this to happen in Canada, a province like Prince Edward Island, for instance, would need to have entered Confederation in 1867 with a historically and exclusively Francophone population protected in addition by an international agreement between Canada and the United Nations (or some equivalent body at the time). This would be like having the current-day inhabitants of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon asking to enter the Canadian federation under United Nations protection with their unilingual-French status intact and with Canada's federal government constrained to accept the arrangement.

Bilingualism Within the Central Government

Finland enacted many language laws as early as 1929, laws that still apply today. The most important of these laws came in 1922 (the Språklag or Language Act); it was amended from 1931 to 1982 and then abolished in favour of the new Languages Act on January 1, 2004. Several other laws deal with the Finnish parliament (house of representatives), the courts and legal system, the public service, education and the Saami minority (Lapland).

Legislative bilingualism

The central government's legislative bilingualism resembles Canada's: both Finnish and Swedish have the same status in parliamentary debates, in legislative drafting and in the enactment of laws. Legislative proposals and any reports linked to national commissions or ministerial committees must be published in Finnish along with a Swedish-language summary of the reports and the full Swedish version of the legislative proposal. In addition, the Swedish minority has a 75-member "Swedish Assembly of Finland" (Svenska Finlands Folkting) that serves as an advisory council designed to protect the rights and promote the interests of Finland Swedes, especially in the areas of language, education and information.

Government Services

Central-government services throughout Finland must be bilingual. In principle, all Swedish-speaking citizens are thus guaranteed national-government services in their own language. At the municipal level, access to services in one's language depends on the actual status of the municipality (recognized   bilingual or unilingual). So, citizens cannot receive bilingual municipal services from a unilingual municipality, but that does not prevent a Swedish-speaking citizen from using Swedish with national-government authorities.

Of course, things aren't always perfect in bilingual municipalities. Though municipal employees must, in principle, know how to speak Swedish, their often very poor command of the language prompts many Swedophones to speak Finnish in order to get adequate service. This occurs regularly in Canada when bilingual Francophones prefer to use English in order to receive better services. Language tests in both Finnish and Swedish are used separately in the national public service to ensure that applicants know both languages well enough. Candidates must register a grade of "excellent," "good" or "satisfactory" to be accepted.

The Courts and Legal System

Finnish and Swedish are both officially recognized languages in all of Finland's courts, from the lowest to the highest. In principle, Finnish citizens have the right to use either Finnish or Swedish during a trial or hearing, be they one of the parties involved or a witness. However, the courts are also tied to the language status of their municipalities (unilingual or bilingual). Interpreters are used for appearances at a trial or during police interrogations when the individual in question does not speak the district's language.


Finnish and Swedish speakers can attend schools that give courses in the language of their choice at the pre-kindergarten, elementary, high-school or university level. Finland even has two distinct education systems based on language, but students must live in bilingual municipalities to have that option. Bilingual municipalities must provide separate schooling for both language groups. University education is available in both Finnish and Swedish as well. The University of Helsinki, the Technological University of Helsinki at Espoo (Esbo) and the Finland School Theatre teach in both Finnish and Swedish. The University of Åbo Akademi, however, teaches strictly in Swedish. In Canada, education falls under provincial jurisdiction, but in Finland, it's a municipal matter.

What's more, Finland has a specific language policy for Saames in Lapland, even though Saame isn't an official "national" language. Finnish law contains not only specific provisions for Saames and "Tsiganes," but also general measures aimed at Russians and Tatars.

Certainly, Finland's Swedish "official language" minority has considerable protection when compared with other minorities around the world. Again, the Swedish minority is tiny (5.5% of the population), and territorial equality applies in fact to only a few municipalities along the Gulf of Bothnia. Across the rest of the country, Helsinki excepted, the Swedish minority remains mostly in the shadows. Still, the formal rights that Finland grants to Swedophones can be considered as exceptional, because they so closely resemble those afforded to the Finnish majority.

That's why the Finnish model is so often cited as a model for conflict resolution at both the national and international levels. It's also seen as a path to solving regional-autonomy issues and those of certain minorities. Over the past several years, Finland has attracted increased attention from journalists, political personalities, civil servants and scientists who have studied its language policy, both in terms of the two national languages and those of Finland's smaller minorities (Saamis, Russians, Roms and Tatars). All told, the Finnish model has worked and thus holds great fundamental value.

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