Arrival and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Finns/Varpu LindstrÖm

The Canadian census in 1901 reported 2,502 people of Finnish origin; contemporary records and observations place the number at between 4,000 and 5,000. Many emigrants passed through Canada, their stated destination, on their way to the United States; some followed canal or railway construction from the United States to Canada. Furthermore, “Finnish origin” in the Canadian census may indicate origin in Sweden, Norway, Russia, or even the United States.

About one-quarter of the earliest immigrants were women, and their presence was a prerequisite for actual settlement. By the 1880s there were signs of Finnish community life near the coal mines on Vancouver Island, as well as in Port Arthur, Fort William, and Copper Cliff, in Ontario. By the 1890s Finns began to settle also in Saskatchewan.

The pre-World War I Grand Duchy of Finland did not view emigration favourably. It did not wish to lose its young and healthy people, and nationalists, describing emigrants as traitors, claimed that all Finns were needed at home to boost language and culture and to help in the movement for separation from the Russian Empire. The Lutheran Church similarly took a harsh view of emigration. Moreover, in order to obtain an exit visa from Finland all emigrants had to be confirmed by the Lutheran Church. Those being confirmed had to be able to read religious material, and so virtually all Finnish emigrants to Canada during the nineteenth century were literate.

In the 1880s and 1890s the colonization departments of Canada and the CPR stepped up recruitment in Finland, and in 1899 the Canadian government sponsored five Finns to come to Canada and choose the most suitable land for a settlement. The delegation chose Red Deer, in the future province of Alberta, and planned to bring annually some four or five thousand settlers – Protestant, fair-haired, literate, and experienced in clearing virgin forests and cultivating rugged northern lands. Propaganda efforts failed, however, to redirect more than a small but steadily growing trickle of U.S.-bound Ostrobothnians to Alberta.

Statistics for the twentieth century are more reliable. Increased Finnish immigration reflected employment opportunities in resources and construction. Newly settled Finnish communities served as magnets for other Finns. Between 1900 and 1920 over 22,000 emigrated to Canada, and, from 1921 to 1930, over 36,000.

The second, post-World War II wave peaked during the 1950s, when 16,400 Finns landed. Changes in Canadian immigration policy in the 1960s and 1970s drastically reduced their numbers, as did Finland’s economic boom of the 1980s. Unskilled and less-educated emigrants no longer met requirements, and few Finns entered as assisted relatives. Today, immigrants are often professionals or highly skilled individuals working for Finnish or multinational companies.

During the 1970s and 1980s female immigrants began to outnumber men. Finland’s women are among the best educated in the world and many can qualify as independent immigrants. Others have arrived as foreign domestics to improve their language skills and to see Canada, but after their term of service many have applied for immigrant status. Yet others have come as spouses of Canadian citizens. Students registering in Canadian universities and colleges may remain in the country as spouses of citizens or be hired by international and domestic companies.

Where the pioneers settled over a century ago, one is likely to find a thriving Finnish community still today. The only significant internal migration was away from the prairies during the 1920s and 1930s and to British Columbia following World War II, especially since the 1980s. In 1931 Finns made up 0.42 percent of the Canadian population – their largest proportion ever.

Their impact in Canada has been regional, and their culture and communities have been most vibrant in northern and northwestern Ontario. Finns formed the largest non-British, non-French ethnic group in several small resource towns before 1939 and do so in Thunder Bay today. In 1929, 60 percent of Finns declared Ontario their intended destination, as compared to 26 percent of all immigrants; 4 percent of Finns intended to settle in the prairies, compared with 56 percent of all immigrants.

Ontario’s share of Canada’s Finns rose steadily from 55 percent in 1911 to 67 percent in 1961 and declined to 65 percent in 1991. Since 1961 British Columbia’s share has risen from 17 percent to 22 percent. The prairie provinces reached their peak in 1921, with a quarter of Finnish Canadians; today they have 10 percent, with more than half of that number in Alberta. Quebec attracted Finns during the late 1920s and 1930s, when hydro projects needed men, and Montreal, maids; its share reached 7 percent in 1931 and stands at 2 percent today. The north and the Atlantic provinces have had very few Finnish settlers.

Because of an ageing population and lack of substantial new immigration, the number of single-origin Finnish Canadians has declined steadily from the high of 59,336 in 1961 to 39,230 in 1991. Census statistics for 1991, which register multiple ethnic responses (59,865 individuals), indicate significant endogamy and suggest a much stronger community.

Finnish communities began as male-dominated, but now there are more women than men. The imbalance was greatest in Ontario and British Columbia in 1911, with 68 percent of Finns being male. In small resource towns men outnumbered women by ten to one. The prairies had a more balanced ratio, attracting more families. The balance began to shift after 1945, and by 1991 all Finnish areas had significantly more Finnish women – a consequence of the longevity of Finnish females as well as the greater number of female immigrants. The proportion of Finnish females in Canada rose from 35 percent in 1911 to 53 percent in 1991.

Other shifts include movement from rural areas to larger urban centres. In 1921, 67 percent of Finns were listed as rural; in 1991, half of single-response Finns lived in four urban areas – Toronto (6,000), Thunder Bay (5,805), Vancouver (4,455), and Sudbury (3,340). Considering both single- and multiple-response Finns, Thunder Bay (12,385) is slightly ahead of Toronto (12,350) in numbers, followed by Vancouver (10,735) and Sudbury (6,670). The Finns’ impact is greatest in Thunder Bay, where they form a significant proportion of the population.