Finnish background source of strength for Sweden’s new discrimination ombudsman
By Mari Manninen in Stockholm
Finnish-born Katri Linna, 44, recently began her new job as Sweden’s Ombudsman against Ethnic Discrimination.
She is the person to call if a housing or job application is turned down because of accented Swedish, or if access to a bar is denied because of skin colour.
The Ombudsman gives statements, and can take alleged perpetrators of discrimination to court. The latest law on discrimination is fairly recent, and the cases are closely monitored.
Linna likes to be able to influence public opinion. She also admits that she likes being photographed, and to be a boss, "even though we’re not supposed to say that", she smiles.
In Sweden emphasising one’s own good sides is frowned upon. However, Linna is not shy, and speaks openly of her sources of pride.
One source of pride is that a year ago she completed the so-called Swedish Classic, by taking part in the Vasa skiing event (90 km.), the bicycle race around Lake Vättern (300 km.), the Vansbro Swim (3 km.), and the Lidingö Run (30 km.).
"My goal is to exercise less", Linna laughs. She is also a workaholic.
After finishing school in Finland, Linna, who had lived in Tampere and Helsinki, came to work at a Swedish sausage factory in 1979. She was to have stayed there for six months, earning money and learning Swedish.
As it turned out, the young woman stayed in Uppsala to study: economics first, and then law. She made friends, and even found a boyfriend, so she decided to stay.
Linna has worked as a lawyer in a bank, in court, in a law firm, in the trade union movement, and substituting for the Discrimination Ombudsman. In recent years she has been the head lawyer in a trade union of industrial office workers.
Linna, who was widowed four years ago, lives with her 11-year-old son in Nacka near Stockholm.
Although she does not differ in appearance from an average Swede, she has also been the victim of discrimination, because her mother tongue is not Swedish.
When planning her career Linna was told that there is a certain branch of the law which is out of her reach because of her background. "That was insulting. I speak Swedish well."
At their student dormitory in Uppsala, Linna and a Finnish friend were told by their Swedish friends not to speak Finnish.
"It seemed stupid, but we accepted it. In retrospect it seems quite shocking. There are still work places in Sweden where Finns are told not to speak Finnish with each other during the lunch hour."
Swedes have had a great desire to integrate everyone who lives in the country, and Linna believes that the idea of coexistence of different languages and religions is not understood as well as it is in Finland.
"In Finland it has been self-evident that some people are of the Orthodox religion, and that more than one language can coexist. In Sweden it has been considered impossible to think that more than one language would fit in the country. For instance, treatment of the Finnish language has been disgraceful."
"On the other hand, there is much diversity in Sweden, and people are accustomed to having colleagues of various skin colours at work. People do not say terrible things to each other as easily as may still be the case in Finland.
As Discrimination Ombudsman, Linna wants to be more strict than her predecessor.
She is frustrated that in recent years the Ombudsman has succeeded only once in convincing a court that an employer has violated the law. Other discrimination cases have foundered on a lack of evidence, while other cases have been settled out of court.
"I want to look and see if the Discrimination Ombudsman can use the law to push all cases brought before the courts all the way to the end." Linna is quite willing to propose legislative changes if the present laws do not lead to convictions.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.3.2005
MARI MANNINEN / Helsingin Sanomat