Sweden to set up truth commission to shed light on abuse of Tornedalians

Sweden to set up truth commission to shed light on abuse of Tornedalians
Sweden's Culture Minister Amanda Lind, Kerstin Salomonsson and Hanna Aili. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
Sweden on Wednesday announced plans to initiate a truth and reconciliation commission about past abuses of the Tornedalian minority, which included forced assimilation and examinations based on racial biology.

Tornedalians are one of Sweden's recognized minority groups. They get their name from the Torne River Valley, an area along the border between Finland and Sweden. The language Meänkieli – a Finnic language or group of Finnish dialects – is traditionally spoken by people from the valley region, although many now live in different parts of Sweden.

“It is incredibly important that we make the abuses visible, not only to prevent something similar happening in the future but also to rebuild trust between the minority and the Swedish government. Because there are deep wounds within the minority,” Minister of Culture Amanda Lind told TT.

She met with the Swedish Tornedalian National Association (STR-T) and the youth organization Met Nuoret on Wednesday. The question was raised by the Swedish Tornedalian National Association In 2016.

“Now we, speakers of Meänkieli – Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaisians – take our place in Swedish history. Our story will finally be heard. We are grateful for that,” said Kerstin Salomonsson, chairwoman of STR-T.

Salomonsson says that the history of Tornedalians is unknown to most people. 


Kerstin Salomonsson, chairwoman of the Swedish Tornedalian National Association. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

“Not even those within our minority are aware of it. They might know that Meänkieli wasn't allowed in school, but they don't know of the workhouses or abuses in form of racial biology examinations.”

As with other Swedish minorities, Tornedalians were subjected to Swedish eugenics programmes and policies of forced assimilation. For example, children were punished if heard speaking Meänkieli at school, and many were subjected to skull measurements at school, in experiments apparently based on the now-debunked pseudoscience of craniometry, which was used as a way of classifying different races.

“When I was young my father repeatedly tried to tell me about 'the weird times' when they were subjected to skull measuring and photographed, but at the time I wasn't interested in hearing him out. However, in my home village, Övre Soppero, these practices were extensively used,” said Salomonsson.


The Torne River, which is part of the valley where Meänkieli is traditionally spoken. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

Work houses

The assimilation of Tornedalians was done in the form of educational workhouses, where children were forced to stay for long periods of time, only ever allowed to speak Swedish, even in their spare time.

“Many had to be at the workhouses for up to eight months at a time. They recruited staff that spoke no Finnish or Meänkieli and many children didn't fare well. Beatings were common,” said Salomonsson. 

Hanna Aili, chairwoman of the youth organization Met Nuoret, says that the politics of 'Swedification', or assimilation, led to many parents not speaking Meänkieli with their children. 

“A generation has been stripped of their cultural legacy. We are still Tornedalians but there is a limit to how far into the cultural community we can reach. But we do see a renewed interest in reclaiming our language and going forth it is really important that we get the resources and strength to make that happen,” Aili told TT.


Hanna Aili, chairwoman of Met Nuoret, the Tornedalian Youth Association. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT 

Reconciliation

The truth commission is set to begin its work in spring 2020, and work is predicted to continue until 2022.

Asked by TT whether the Tornedalian community will recieve an apology from the Swedish state, the Culture Minister said: “We'll see what conclusions the commission reach. It is supposed to both emphasize history and give specific suggestions on what can be done to reach reconciliation.”

“This investigation is about the Swedish state recognizing what has been done, and I think that in itself is an apology,” said Salomonsson.

Meänkieli

Meänkieli – meaning “our language” – is a Finnic language, or group of dialects, traditionally spoken along the Torne River Valley in northernmost Sweden bordering Finland.

It is recognized as one of the five minority languages in Sweden, alongside Romani, Sami, Finnish and Yiddish.

Not all those who speak Meänkieli are defined as Tornedalians though.

Kvens or Lantalaisians and 'Malmfältsbor' – literally “those who live on the ore fields” – live in different regions or had, traditionally, different occupations and don't necessarily consider themselves as Tornedalian.

Sources: NE, minoritet.se

Article first published in Swedish by TT and adapted for The Local by Elias Liljeström


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