The false promise of truth and reconciliation in the Nordic countries?

In the past couple of years, a number of Sámi leaders have been calling for the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions in the three Nordic countries of Finland, Norway and Sweden. Such commissions are needed, the argument goes, to expose the states’ colonial, assimilationist policies toward the Sámi people in order to improve the state-Sámi relations and advance and strengthen the human rights of the Sámi people. In general, there is a broad support of the idea, mostly because of the vast ignorance of general non-Sámi public about the history and legacy of the oppression of the Sámi people by the Nordic countries, typically considered benign and lacking a history of colonialism. Truth and reconciliation commissions are also viewed as a way of empowering and strengthening Sámi society.

The Sámi advocates of the truth and reconciliation commissions frequently refer to the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a component of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The TRC was mandated to educate Canadians about what happened in residential schools and compile a report with a set of recommendations that would embark the country on the road to reconciliation. In the Sámi media, the Canadian TRC has been hailed as a success because of the compensation payments of the survivors. The extent of Canada’s implementation (or lack thereof) of the TRC Report’s 94 Calls to Action has not been assessed, nor is the wide and deep criticism by Indigenous people of the state-led reconciliation road show in Canada which has turned to be pretty words but little action. The wish of getting along better by educating the mainstream or by holding hands does not suffice.

Reconciliation necessarily requires and includes socioeconomic justice and political equality which for Indigenous peoples translates into compensation, reparations and recognition and rebuilding of Indigenous sovereignty, which in turn includes addressing power imbalances between the settler colonial state of Canada and the sovereignty of Indigenous nations. These issues are rarely discussed by the state and its institutions which hold tight on to the legal fiction of assumed Crown sovereignty.

The rise of the Ellos Deatnu! (Long Live Deatnu) movement earlier this summer demonstrates how the Nordic countries – in this case, Norway and Finland – are far from ready to have any kind of a truth or reconciliation process. Quite the opposite, both states have no shame whatsoever running roughshod over not only the Sámi and their rights but their own constitutions. In fact, they engage in an odd and somewhat unprecedented process of first passing unconstitutional legislation and when called out, wringing their hands and pathetically arguing that “even it may be unconstitutional we have to live with it” – as if law was not made by people but passed down by gods.

The fisheries in the River Deatnu is among the best rivers for wild Atlantic salmon in Europe. As a “border” river between colonial states of Norway and Finland, Deatnu is regulated by a negotiated agreement between the two states. In the past years, scientists have rang alarm bells with studies that show a decline in the fish stocks and required radical restrictions in the fisheries. As a result, the Norwegian and Finnish state renegotiated the Deatnu Fisheries Agreement. It was approved by the two parliaments in Spring 2017, without the input of Sámi organizations and individuals, other local people or fisheries cooperatives. The constitutions of Norway and Finland require the consultation of the Sámi Parliaments in matters affecting the Sámi people. The new fisheries agreement has been opposed by nearly everyone on the both sides of the river, Sámi and non-Sámi alike. The only ones to gain more extensive fishing rights are the non-locals who own summer cabins by the river on the Finnish side of the river.

From the broad-based resistance emerged a group of local Sámi and other activists called Ellos Deatnu! which, on Summer Solstice 2017, set up a camp and moratorium on an island near Ohcejohka/Utsjoki town to oppose and nullify the new Agreement on the waters around the island and to declare local Sámi governance in the area. In practical terms, the moratorium means that the sport fishing permits of non-locals are not valid in the waters around the island. Instead, such permit holders are supposed to ask permission to fish from local Sámi and especially those families whose traditional fishing sites are in question.

Traditional Sámi fishing rights have belonged to and been passed down within families. Today, younger people who do not live by the river permanently are not allowed to practice traditional Sámi fishing. If they want to fish at all, it is restricted to certain methods. People considered “non-local residents” – including those who were born and grew up by the river – require a daily, considerably more expensive permit as a sports fisher. In this way, Sámi families will lose their traditional fishing rights and the Sámi fisheries in the Deatnu river will end as the younger generation are deprived of a range of skills and knowledge related to various traditional fishing practices.

The Ellos Deatnu! movement has also requested the governments of Norway and Finland to present them the statutes demonstrating the transfer of the ownership of the Deatnu River from the Sámi to the states. A symbolic request more than anything else, the point is to expose the Nordic legal fiction of creating state ownership out of thin air over Sámi resources such as the Deatnu River and its world renowned salmon fisheries.

Given the blatant disregard of constitutionally recognized Sámi rights as well as basic administrative procedures of local consultation and input required for lawmaking, it seems too early to seriously entertain the idea of Nordic truth and reconciliation commissions. No question, historic wrongdoings against the Sámi must be finally brought to daylight and discussed openly in Nordic societies. However, when there is neither political will nor tangible momentum (in Canada, the momentum emerged from the class action lawsuit that resulted in the largest settlement agreement in the country’s history) I fear that any truth and reconciliation process will fall on deaf ears and may backfire in an already conservative, hostile and retrograde political climate.

According to the Sámi Parliament in Finland, the next step in establishing a reconciliation commission is to negotiate the mandate of a truth and reconciliation commission with the state. How can a mandate be negotiated with a state that is not only deliberately undermining but actively working against any concept of reconciliation? Not to mention wasting limited human and financial resources of the Sámi Parliament and Sámi organizations more broadly.

Perhaps more constructive at this time is the related initiative of a local Sámi training course on methods and practice of mediation and conflict resolution that will be offered this fall as a joint venture by three educational institutions in Finland. In the course open to all to apply for, the students will learn how disputes arise in society and how to solve them before they grow into bigger conflicts. Given the specific political climate of the Nordic countries and the more general criticism of the reconciliation discourse by Indigenous people, the challenge of any such course is to maintain a critical approach and not embrace or adopt mainstream views of reconciliation or mediation without a second (and critical) thought. This has been one of the key issues we have discussed repeatedly in the Canadian Political Science Association’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee which was established last year to develop its response to the challenges posed by the TRC Report’s Calls to Action.

Education is critical but not at any cost. As one of the six members of the committee, my specific area has been on considering ways of enhancing teaching in the area of Indigenous-settler relations. Ultimately, one of the key purposes of teaching in the era of reconciliation must be to change laws and policies so that Indigenous political institutions and legal orders are recognized and empowered. The non-recognition and very denial of existence of these institutions and orders are also often the source of conflict within Indigenous, including Sámi, societies.

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