Project seeks to assess respect for Indigenous rights in Sapmi

“We wanted a tool to estimate and monitor the level of implementation of Indigenous rights in the countries,” said Oula-Antti Labba, the lawyer that worked on the statistic project for the Saami Council. (Kristoffer Haetta/Saami Council)

A project established to gather statistics and assess the respect of Indigenous rights in Sapmi is an important step towards better understanding the situation for Saami in northern Europe, says the lawyer that worked on the project for the Saami Council.

“We knew that there was no reliable and appropriate statistics about Saami because the national governments do not keep statistics based on ethnicity,” Oula-Antti Labba told Eye on the Arctic in a phone interview.

In Finland, although the country keeps data on nationality, language and country of birth, they do not keep statistics on ethnicity and Norway also does not include ethnicity in their census, the Saami Council says.

“And there is of course, good reasons to protect ethnic groups from these kinds of ethnic registers,” Labba said. “But it’s also the reason it’s difficult to talk about statistics in terms of Saami and ethnic groups such as Indigenous people.”

The Saami are an Arctic Indigenous people whose traditional homeland spans the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s western Arctic, an area they refer to collectively as Sapmi.

Labba said one of the most important metrics they wanted to qualify was the state of respect for legal rights in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

“We wanted a tool to estimate and monitor the level of implementation of Indigenous rights in the countries,” he said.

International tool used

The tool used was Indigenous Navigator, something established by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), a human rights organization.

The Navigator includes some 170 questions in its survey that covers a range of topics from self-determination, human rights and land rights, to education, media and health care.

The tool has previously been used in countries like Brazil.

To do the Sapmi survey the Saami Council partnered with IWGIA, who coordinated the project, and Sámi allaskuvla – Sámi University of Applied Sciences, who helped fund the project and give input into the survey.

Funding also came from Nordic Arctic Co-operation Programme of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

A forest in Finnish Lapland. Respect for land rights was one of the focuses of the Indigenous Navigator survey. (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

The Saami Council headed the research for the surveys and talking to Saami organizations and groups about the project.

“The idea is to monitor how the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is recognized and monitored,” Labba said.

National surveys for Norway and Finland got underway in 2021 and have now been published here.

Funding and resources  is not yet obtained for Sweden, but Labba says he hopes that can soon go ahead as well.

Filling statistical knowledge gaps going ahead

Labba says the survey results should be able to fill in the gaps in knowledge about Saami.

Going on, he says conversations need to continue on the pros and cons of national governments collecting ethnic data, and how it can be ensured that Indigenous peoples stay the owners of their information.

“It’s an ongoing discussion,” Labba said. “I’m just hoping there’s a good solution in the future where we have a safe and reliable way for collection these statistics about Saami.

“In my opinion, the administrators and ownership of the statistics should the Saami people themselves and they should have the same right to collect this data as other nation states. But of course it’s also a resource issue, but that could be built with a statistic program or perhaps a centre. But yes, I think it could happen in future if we find a safe and reliable way of collecting data and securing Saami collective rights.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at) 

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: “We still have a lot of healing to do with our fellow Canadians” – National Day for Truth and Reconciliation observed September 30, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Finland—Election of new commissioners postponed, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Greenland, Denmark initiate investigation into past relations, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Will the green transition be the new economic motor in the Arctic?, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sami in Sweden start work on structure of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Int’l Inuit org releases protocols for researchers, institutions and policy makers in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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