By Hanna Snellman, Vice Dean, Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki and
Gertrude Saxinger, Assistant Professor, Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna
The global North, the Arctic and Subarctic, has been a place of attraction for people from elsewhere for many centuries already. Particularly in the 19th century, migration for the rich Arctic natural resources was on the agenda: fishing, fur hunting and trapping, forestry and mining.
In the Yukon region in Canada’s North, for instance, a massive population movement from the South was triggered from 1896 onwards by the Klondike Gold Rush, especially in the region of Dawson City as the place was named by the so-called stampeders. Over one hundred thousand men and women made their difficult and often deadly way through the mountains over to the blessed deposits of this shiny mineral. The influx of migrants had massive impacts on local social well-being and health, cultural practices and traditional ways of dwelling and movement.
At approximately the same time, another gold rush was well on its way, but that gold was green in colour. Ecologically the conditions for forest industry are the same throughout the northern coniferous zone. With time the regional biases in forestry have, however, changed as the forest sector has expanded, since it was for a very long time possible to move on to new, virgin resource areas. The native population of the new areas was not as a rule sufficiently large of doing the work required of it, so the know-how passed to the new areas by means of migration.
In the Nordic countries and Russia the wood-processing industry only acquired its subsequent vast proportions with the establishment of steam sawmills. The forest industries of Sweden, Finland and Russia can all thank the Norwegian timber companies for starting up the steam sawmill industry. The Norwegians operated at all levels of the forest industry, from lumberjacks to big investors, and to such an extent that some claim the development of forest industry in these countries as theirs.
What gold did to Yukon, untouched forests did to Finnish Lapland and elsewhere. The first major steam mill in the area was operated by a Norwegian company from 1873-1974 which was the first to extend its cutting and river driving north of the Arctic Circle. Neither the companies nor the state were interested in the number of men who travelled up north to work in logging sites – they were interested in the number of trees cut and floated down the rivers. Hubs such as Rovaniemi, located by the Arctic Circle, grew in the same pace with the forest industry. It has been estimated that around the year 1900 about 10,000 men went through Rovaniemi in search of work every year. Little by little, the itinerant workforce settled permanently to communities north of the Arctic Circle, usually through marriage with local girls. New homes were built, and schools and other institutions established for the growing population.
During the 20th century the upward population curve shifted downwards. For decades Yukon and Lapland were losing population, because there was not enough work and people had to move to the south to study and work. However, today the North, both in Yukon and Lapland, is attracting newcomers again. In Yukon the rotational fly-in/fly-out workforce is working in the mines – sometimes more, sometimes less according to the boom and bust cycles of the mineral industry. In Lapland mines have been popping up only for a decade, and the situation is slightly different. For many a job at the mine gave an opportunity to return back to Lapland from southern Finland, something a Lapland-born person appreciates. How long they will have that job is a question they of course ask themselves before settling down permanently.
Such historical and recent cases show that in the global North coming and going is a common phenomenon. Today, people even from far away places like Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia or the Balkans come to the Arctic. They enrich local cultures and bring new economic ideas. They often also secure the existence of little schools and other social services in remote communities. Security for small remote communities, their viability and often even their existence is not only dependent on more political emphasis on settlements beyond urban centres, but also on fluctuating and in-migrating people.