Crees offer solidarity to Finnish Indigenous communities

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For many Indigenous groups fighting to maintain their culture, it can often feel like a lonely, uphill battle. Standing up to corporate interests is never easy, but the rise of an interconnected world can support international resistance. Facing dispossession of lands or discrimination in public services, Indigenous populations can look beyond their territories for ways to stand up to oppression and injustice.

It was in this spirit that Youth Chief Kaitlyn Hester Moses and Deputy Chief Mandy Gull travelled with Greenpeace to Finland to meet with representatives of the Sami people.

“We used the opportunity to share Eeyou Itchee stories and to explore their culture – there is so much we can learn from each other, and so many similarities to the struggles we face,” Moses told The Nation.

The Sami traditionally inhabit vast swathes of land in the northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. They have traditionally led a semi-nomadic lifestyle centred on reindeer herding, fishing and trapping. This way of life not only transcends national borders but also depends on one of the most environmentally sensitive regions in the world. This has garnered them plenty of strife with four different sovereign bodies looking to exploit the natural resources in their homeland.

In Finland, for instance, Sami herders faced off against state-sanctioned logging operations that threatened to cut off the only food supply for reindeer in the winter when the snow is deep: lichen. Together with Greenpeace, they managed to get the government to back off the crucial forests on their herding paths.

However, the Finnish government revised the Forest Act in 2016, a move that freed up 3,600 square kilometres of land and another 22,000 square km of waterways in northern Finland for economic exploitation.

One of these is a $4.4 billion, 526-kilometre railroad that would stretch across Norway and Finland in a bid to connect the Arctic Ocean’s oil and gas reserves to Europe. Current predictions estimate that 20% of the world’s untapped gas pockets are in the Arctic Circle.

The project would essentially cut up the reindeer herding grounds, stifling Sami attempts to follow traditional migration patterns. Reindeer are a central tenet of Sami culture, and much like caribou, are sensitive creatures and need to migrate to thrive in the icy climate. The project would also make reindeer hunting near the line virtually impossible.

Contrary to agreed-upon guidelines of interaction between the Finnish government and Sami Parliament, Moses told the Nation that at no time were the Sami consulted on the program. “There was no consent, no approval,” she said. “This is coming out of nowhere. It’s like telling the Sami they are not important.”

Finnish authorities denied that they failed to consult the Sami.

“The project is still in a very early phase, and there is no decision to plan or build the actual railway,” said Timo Lohi, the development manager of the Arctic Corridor project. “Yet separate negotiations have already been arranged with every single reindeer herding cooperative as well as with the Sami Parliament, who have nominated a secretary to assist with planning. If we move into the next phase of planning, the process will be much more interactive and would explore the costs and benefits to the Sami in much more detail.”

When asked about the impact on local forests, Lohi told the Nation that, “The project has no intentions of increasing forest product transports but will instead replace trucks, which traverse the region at the moment. It is simply a more environmentally friendly and economical way of transporting the expected 500,000 tonnes of timber per year without having to go through forests in the Sami area.”

Yet most Sami do not feel like they have been consulted, said Moses. “Even if they think this is a good cause, they should still include them in the matter – after all, it is their homeland.”

Resistance to the project has already begun. Moses and Gull participated in one protest organized by the Sami youth association, where protesters dressed in red, and explored different expressions of red lines.

“In Sami culture, red is the colour to symbolize life – but to most people, it means stop,” explained Moses, who saw similarities in the rail project to the Cree defence of the Broadback River watershed. “The lines reflect how their homeland would be cut up, and how to live is to stand up and fight.”

During the press conferences associated with the protest, one Sami youth stood up, with a quiver in his voice and asked: “If they continue to build, who will I be? Where will I go? Where will I hunt?”

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