Jokamiehenoikeus: Why Canadians need to think Finnish about Nature

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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/

fullsizeoutput_28daAs 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.

 

Why Canada and Finland are Secretly Siblings, Separated at Birth

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Hockey. Need I say more?

But just in case: Finland’s huge telecom communications company, Nokia, is responsible for a large chunk of the country’s economic activity. Nokia had some trouble with its handset business and now, seems almost invisible. Our telecommunications giant – Nortel – actually did disappear.

Reason #3: winter.

Finland knows what it’s like to live close to overbearing, powerful neighbours. Think the United States makes life difficult? Try the Soviet Union, which Finland had to fight off in its terrible Winter War in 1939-40. Or the Russians, recently flexing their military muscles in the far north. Or even the Swedes, with whom the Finns have a love/hate relationship not so different from our own with the Americans. Recently, the Finns concluded a deal with the Swedes to share military hardware. ‘That’s smart. If anything were to happen,’ I said to a Finn at the time, ‘you would have the Swedes here to help you.’ ‘Are you kidding?’ this Finn replied, only half-jokingly. ‘For Sweden, we’re just a handy buffer zone.’

#5: forests. Birch trees. Lots of them.

Finns are polite to a fault. When I was recently in Finland, they would – almost without exception, apologize to me for how unfriendly a country Finland is. Then, in the next breath, they’d invite me for dinner. Like Canadians, Finns probably even apologize for being so polite.

#7: lakes and rivers (rivers are called ‘joki’ in Finnish). Lots of them, too.

Finland is a country with a future. The land in Finland is actually rising up out of the sea, an effect of the rebound since the last ice age, as the land ‘springs back’ from the weight of tons of ice no longer there. As the ice melts, there’s more land to Canada too. Unfortunately.

#9: our poutine, their karjalan piirakka. Just as unusual, just as tasty.

Finland is a safe, relatively happy country with a small population, largely ignored by the world. It has a winter that’s not as bad as its reputation (I was north of the arctic circle in February and it was warmer there than in Montreal). It struggles to do justice in relationship to its aboriginal population (the Saami). It has a linguistic minority in one part of the country and official bilingualism (Swedish-Finnish). Finland has blueberries and black bears, good universities and friendly people. Both countries have a history of social democratic movements that, occasionally, overlap: the most famous Finnish pancake house in Canada is the “Hoito” (Finnish for ‘care’), opened as a workers’ co-operative in Thunder Bay.

There you are: ten reasons why Finland and Canada are siblings separated at birth. I could go on. But of course, like any siblings, sometimes it’s the differences that are also interesting. Whatever else you can say about Finland, you’ve got to love a country that invented the sauna. Imagine visiting during a midsummer’s evening when it stays light into the early hours, and when there are bonfires waiting, with a sauna, perhaps some singing, a cold beer and a swim in the ocean or a shivery northern lake. That’s not just any sibling. That’s a sibling worth getting to know better.

Where is Home?

Here is an article that was published last weekend in two papers in Finland, about my new documentary on Finnish Canadians and Americans and the impossibility of ever going home. Thanks for Mari Tiensuu, reporter, for taking an interest in the film! (click on the link below to see the full article in Finnish)

Mari Tiensuu Finland Aug 2014

filming last daysand btw, you can see the 90 second trailer for this film by clicking on the link at the top of this page: Trailer: Under the North Star

 

Under the North Star

sauna

Taala Pohjan tahden alla, on nyt kotomaame.

Under the North Star is your homeland.
Not mine, but yours. Your homeland. Kotomaamme.
A rich word, a rich world you share:
granite and birch, heavy rye porridge and Jukka’s freshly-smoked whitefish,
oil on our fingers.
This homeland a rich dish,
bedrock rolling to the sea.
Marja-Leena and Tuula doing yoga, the long day stretching with them into gold-red evening,
Matti’s quiet sauna wisdom and Liisa’s raiki helping
set tables settled stomachs, well-fed for bed
heavy snacks, bone-tired to the bone,
16 CDs, say Anneli and Mirja.
But there must have been a hundred hugs:
old friends, neighbors, family coming from miles.
This land, a reunion, like the smiles,
dense as the egg on our Karjalan Piirakka.

Mo mo mi mo mi mo ma.
You Finns. You sing, you sauna, you laugh (more than Swedes!) you dance,
Summer’s chance, a precious balance,
Each bringing something: smile like Tuulikki, sing like Tanya,
Niilo listening with tears, Paul’s quiet humour, Helen tracing our journey,
Eila hugs, Kristiina quietly joining in, Dianne so happy to speak French,
Hans’s shoes. We lose inhibitions, learn our tunes.
Dominic, Suomi-fanni, plays spoons
while Erkki jumps from magnificent aria,
to tux-free, bare-bellied accordion prance.
And down the bus aisle Marja and I dance as Markku answers his phone,
finding our next home, the women tapping their sternums.

Times taught tight as the chords of Siipeni Murtuneet.
From the piano our director’s outstretched arm directing, resurrecting, confecting harmony,
the one “we” Terhi brings from so many individuals,
the details, schedules, worries forgotten.
Heal our broken wings, we sing.
And don’t forget, she adds, bending at the waist to show us,
fingers plucking her hair as she straightens: Sing from your heart.
And up from the top of your head.

In two months this bay will be ice all the way to Sweden.
But for now it’s the sea, and the rock, the lingon-berries Ismo and Eeva-Liisa, Seija and Marjatta
bend to pick.
Three miles to the Russian border, says Pirkko. This is my home.
And we, these late summer sunshine days, happy pilgrims under Leo’s care across the land of the north star.
Taala Pohjan tahden alla, on nyt kotomaame.
The same North Star, Vaasudbury, Alskat Hemmontreal, Turkkubellingham.
Our home both here and there. Split citizens. Homeward bound, but which direction?
Meren tuolla puolen toisen kodon saamme. This is also true.

Taala on kuin kukkasella
aika lyhyt meilla.
Then comes the day. The final chords, the binders closed, the last programs handed out.
No more dressing in washrooms. We make our way. Away.
But wasn’t it just yesterday
we shook hands in Vaasa?
Now hugs, hands held, a tear, a sigh.
Sometimes if you can’t say what you feel,
You can still sing it.
Sama taivas sama maa. The same north star, wherever you roam.
This is your land. Not mine.
But I almost felt at home.

gathering
with Liisa