Multicultural heritage turned into a career

Sami writer Nils Aslak Valkeapää once wrote that “The home is where the heart is; it travels with me”. This statement is very true in the life of Lisa Jokivirta, 28.
– My mom always says that I was born to be a bit of a nomad. Who knows? But it’s definitely when I’m on the move that I feel at my very best, Jokivirta says.
Lisa Jokivirta was born in Etobicoke, Ontario. She has a sister, Anna, who is three years older than her. The mother of the family is from Anjalankoski and father, according to his own word, a true ‘Pohjanmaa poika’ from Kokkola.
– My parents met and got married in their late 30s, and my mom had us in her early forties. Maybe this is partly why I have always grown up thinking that you don’t have to follow the conventional path in this world – you can do things in your own time, according to your own watch.

Travels start

The family moved to Finland, when Lisa was three years old, so her first memories date back to Järvenpää.
– I loved our house in Järvenpää almost more than any other. I don’t think I remember a dull moment there. We had two saunas, a huge backyard with open fields stretching out beyond, a park nearby and many places to play and hide.
From her childhood Lisa recalls good memories, especially learning to play kantele, and some bad, like being forced to try mämmi. The nomad in her lifted its head already in the early years of Lisa´s life.
– We lived near the train station, which for whatever reason fascinated me. I would beg my mom to take me to the station as often as possible. I could have spent hours just watching the travelers pass by, wondering where they were headed and why. I would also make up stories to the other daycare kids about all of the far away places that this train would one day take us.


The Jokivirtas returned back to Ontario, to St. Catharines in 1989. Lisa started school there. Family had friends there, both Canadian and Finnish, so the family settled in quite well. Anna had also learned some English whilst in school in Järvenpää, but for Lisa, Finnish was the only language that she knew. For this reason she seemed to have the hardest time adapting.
– I started the first grade without knowing how to understand or express myself in the language being spoken around me. I think I must have wanted to colonize Canada with the Finnish language, as I continued to speak Finnish to my classmates, whilst they spoke English to me, Lisa laughs.
Soon Lisa made friends with her classmates despite not sharing a common language. Before she knew it, she was speaking English. At first with a heavy Finnish accent, but nevertheless.
– I didn’t really mind me being the weird Finnish girl in class. It didn’t take me long to realize that it’s not the end of the world to be the odd one out – in fact, as long as you yourself embrace it, it can lead to an interesting story or two.
After graduating from University of Victoria with degree in French Literature and Political Science, and having spent a year in Paris studying along the way, Lisa got hired to work as a researcher at an NGO in London.
– In a city like London, there are so many different worlds to explore – African music scene, Italian quarter, Punjabi food markets, you name it they’ve got it – so nomads can constantly be in motion without ever having to leave.

Finnish or Canadian?

Lisa Jokivirta wanted to continue her studies, but also wanted to get back in touch with her roots. She returned to Finland to start the Master’s programme in Jyväskylä.
– It had been a long time since I had lived in Finland and, at first, it was a bit of a shock to the system moving from the heart of London to the forests of Jyväskylä suburbs. I also felt a little bit uncomfortable speaking Finnish. I now had an accent coming back, and I felt self-conscious not being able to speak the language perfectly despite my Finnish roots, my Finnish pride, and even my Finnish last name, Lisa recalls.
However, as before, things started to go along well, and now Lisa can see herself in Finland for many years to come. Laughing, Lisa admits that in Finland, it is OK to be slightly different – you can still fit in if you’re slightly odd.
– In fact, I think it might be harder to fit in if you’re not.
In Jyväskylä Lisa studied Development and International Cooperation and studies and work related to the field has taken her traveling around the world, for example in Costa Rica, India, Tanzania and Zambia. Some of the most memorable experiences to her have actually been the travels to the more remote areas of Canada and Finland.

Studying indigenous people in Lapland

An interest on the indigenous peoples of world has now taken Lisa to Finnish Lapland, where she lives in a town of 500 people near Utsjoki. She is writing her PhD on modern day life in Utsjoki and on the side she teaches English and Spanish to Finnish and Sami children at the local school. In Utsjoki Finnish, Sami and Norwegian cultures mix and most people speak at least two or three languages. It is also is the only region of Finland where the Sami are still the majority.
– I was drawn here as soon as I arrived. Somehow, despite being small, Utsjoki is one of the most multicultural, accepting and welcoming places that I have been. There is much to be learnt from the edges of the world, Lisa says.
– I believe that the multiculturalism in my life has helped me to adapt to different places, relate to different types of people. Particularly those who sometimes fall in between the cracks. I have always described myself as Finnish-Canadian – maybe this used to be a bit of an identity crisis, but definitely not anymore.
According to her, Canadianness shines through in her in small talk and public speaking and in Finland, she has learnt to bear the silence, and just being with her friends without speaking that much.
– I thinks cultural identity is always in motion, always a flux, a nomad itself, categorizing our culture can lead to stagnation, to fixed categories.
The future plans Lisa wants to keep open.
– At this point my heart - and my home - is in Lapland. I’m just trying to do whatever I’m doing now well, and staying open to whatever comes my way. After finishing the PhD, she might continue teaching, but sure hopes to continue learning.
– I’m not quite sure what the future will hold. All I know for certain is that whatever it is that I do, it’ll be something that I love, nomad-like Lisa says.

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