As different as they are in other ways, most Finns I’ve met have the same attitude toward being outside. It’s where Finns belong: “let’s get out into nature, as often as possible, and as soon as possible!” Whether it’s picking berries, or cross-country skiing, or walking, or a swim and sauna, Finns LOVE the outdoors. The land is their birthright. “No trespassing” signs are odd and out of place. They just don’t seem patriotic.
I knew this about Finns, but until recently I didn’t know the word behind this attitude. It’s jokamiehenoikeus, “Everyman’s Right.” I first discovered its parallel in England and Scotland. There it’s called either “The Right to Roam” (UK) or, more accurately, “the right of responsible access” (Scotland). But whereas in Scotland and in England the laws that allow public access to private land for recreational activities are a recovery of the ancient “commons” understanding of land lost hundreds of years ago, in Finland the practice was never abandoned. There, it’s so much a part of culture that it never had to be made (or re-made) officially into law. Everyman’s (everyperson’s) right is just assumed. In Finland, as one website says, nature is both wild and free. If you’re English-speaking, as I am, you can find handy explanations of Everyperson’s Right here: http://www.nationalparks.fi/hikinginfinland/rightsandregulations and here: http://www.jokamiehenoikeudet.fi/en/
As a Canadian who knows and loves Finns and has enjoyed the few times I’ve travelled through Finland, I’d like my country to have the same healthy attitude to the outdoors. Unfortunately, we don’t. There are many, complicated, reasons for this, including our proximity to the United States (whose narcissistic, individualistic culture of ownership affects us whether we like it or not), our legal heritage mostly from British background, and the incredible fact that much of western Canada was once the private domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company granted to that company by the British King (without asking the First Nations of course), and then sold to the young nation of Canada to develop in part by pushing its original inhabitants onto small, poverty-stricken pieces of marginal territory.
We Canadians have a complicated relationship to our land. We stole it, many of us didn’t come from terrains that look like it, and most of us live in cities with little access to it. Our laws tend to favour private ownership to the detriment of public access. I was stunned, when I first moved to Quebec in the 1980s, to find lakes with seemingly no public swimming allowed, anywhere. “How could this be?” I thought, with two young children in their swim suits in the car and nowhere to swim or picnic. And yet, it’s my belief that many Canadians would change this inherited, selfish attitude to land, if we could. This last summer I wrote an online piece titled “Why Canadians Need the Right to Roam.” It has since had 33,000 views. It was reprinted in the Huffington Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post, and the Narwhal, and led to my being a guest for interviews on three different CBC radio shows about the topic. For Canada to have anything like jokamiehenoikeus, we would have to change much about ourselves. Because it’s not just land-owners who would have to evolve. We, the general public, would have to learn to be more responsible. Land-owners will only see the benefits of allowing limited public access if there ARE benefits, and if littering, vandalism, theft, and other problems don’t arise. The Canadian public must grow up learning to be be as respectful of nature as Finns are. It can happen. But it will probably take a generation.
It’s a worthwhile cultural project. Maybe, in the coming years, Canadians will be asking Finns to show them how to live with nature in a more symbiotic, respectful, and spiritual way. We should be asking our First Nations the same questions, right now. In this way, we will learn and grow. And then perhaps, some day, we too will enjoy Everyperson’s Right.