Norway's Kven people: A divided history

Here I am, back on top of the world. I am in Børselv, Norway and if you want to look it up, it is way past the Arctic Circle, about 72 degrees north.


In the summer of 2005, I was in this region (Finnmark) filming a family reunion in which twin brothers from Toronto - Colin and Ken Bhattacharjee - and their mother Else Methi encountered 300 relatives they'd never met before. By the way, the twins' father is originally from India.

The result is Twin Trek, a 35-minute documentary completed in 2007. In the film, the twins debate issues of multiculturalism, immigration, nationalism and identity. As they are both lawyers, it was a healthy debate.

Prior to filming, I knew that Else's father, who had passed away back in the 1950s, had been quiet about his upbringing in Vadsø, located in northern Norway near the Finnish and Russian borders. Helge Methi moved to the south at age 19 and never looked back. He never visited the area again, never talked about his childhood and didn't even tell his two children about their relatives in the north. It was with this knowledge that I decided to join the twins and their mother on their journey to attend a Methi family reunion in Vadsø, where her father grew up.

What we uncovered was a revelation. Why didn't Else's father talk about the North? Well, it could be that he wasn't Norwegian. Most relatives were reluctant to talk about it. They didn't know much and there seemed to be a code of silence about discussing the past. The twins discover their grandfather was Kven.

During a period of "Norwegianization" âe" an official policy of assimilation that lasted for about 100 years starting around 1850 âe" many minorities in the country were forbidden to own land or businesses unless they could speak and write Norwegian. Children were prohibited from speaking their mother tongues in schools. During this period of oppression, many Kven lost their culture and language.

There's some dispute as to what the Kven, also known as Kainu, are but speaking to Terje Aronsen at the Kven Institute, I discovered that, as a people, they've probably existed for hundreds of years.

Aronsen, by the way, has been a long time Kven rights campaigner and created the first Kven organization in Børselv back in 1984. Three years later, the Norwegian Kven Organization was founded and in 1998, Kvens were finally granted official minority status in Norway.

Kvens exist in Norway, Finland, Sweden, parts of Russia and Estonia. They are linked by language but separated by national borders. There's been a political movement to lump the Kvens with the Finns in Norway âe" inferring that they are simply Finnish migrants. This makes Aronsen angry.

"I have no feeling for the Finnish. It is not my history. Their history is recent, ours is completely different."

While at the first ever Kven culture festival in Børselv âe" which opened Norway's first Kven Culture Centre in April 2007 âe" I discovered more than I could have ever imagined.

The years of oppression have left a generation of Kven bitter. Older Kven are often reluctant to divulge the discrimination they felt or discuss their sense of being cast as second-class citizens. Younger Kven donâe(TM)t realize the rich history of their heritage.

What's amazing about attending such a festival with my film is learning from the audience what it means for them to be validated. Many people came up to me to thank me for making the film, others bought DVDs and several more were eager to talk about the issue of multiculturalism as it's practiced in Canada and elsewhere.

One woman told me: "It's remarkable to know, as one twin said, that you don't have to choose between one culture or the other. Here in Norway, people feel like they have to choose. You can be both."

Another man said he found it incredible that the only people in the film doing any questioning were the twins âe" they were the ones peeling back the layers of history.

The profound conversations I've had are too many to detail here so I am opting to borrow a quote from one famous novelist who recently passed away.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author who fought against dictatorship and abuses of power all his life, died August 3 at age 89.

I want to emphasize that I am not comparing Norwegian history to that of the Stalinist regime. Rather, I'd like to invoke the spirit of this passage from Solzhenitsyn's book, Gulag Archipelago, published in 1973:

âeoeWe have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future.âe

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