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Politics and Intergroup Relations

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

Finnish Canadians have not had a strong presence in parliamentary politics, but some have been active in the labour movement or vociferous opponents of it. Finnish communities have failed to form strong voting blocs, and internal divisions and difficulties with English have reduced their strength. Particularly before World War II, however, many Finns were strong supporters of Canada’s labour movement, and this activism also gave birth to a small, but vigorous, nationalist, right-wing movement in the 1930s.

Among immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1930, many had adopted socialist teachings in their homeland. They were active supporters of trade unions and cooperatives, and some were socialist leaders, journalists, and intellectuals. Canadian working conditions and their own economic vulnerability led many Finns to socialism. Soon many Finnish temperance associations became socialist cultural and political centres.

The Finnish-Canadian socialist movement represented varying degrees of radicalism. There was a utopian socialist experiment – Sointula – on Malcolm Island, just north of Vancouver Island, started in 1901. Its founder, Matti Kurikka, embraced a mixture of theosophical and socialist ideas. In 1901 he launched Canada’s first Finnish-language newspaper Aika (Time; Malcolm Islands, 1901–04). In 1905 the utopian experiment succumbed to financial difficulties. Those who remained on the island divided the land, where their descendants still live. Those who left founded another utopian community, Sammon Takojat, near Websters Corners, but it too was short-lived. Another group left Sointula to found a community in Gibson’s Landing and promptly set up a socialist hall. J.S. Woodsworth, sent into the community as a Methodist minister, called it a major influence on his embrace of the cooperative and socialist vision.

Finnish-Canadian socialists cooperated with other nationalities, especially the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association. Finnish socialists in British Columbia helped set up the Western Federation of Miners and promoted union activity among all west-coast fishermen. The Finnish Society of Toronto, founded by the city’s tailors in 1902, established a network for the many Finnish socialist clubs across Canada, seeking to move beyond ethnic boundaries. In 1906 the entire membership joined the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC). In 1907 several Finnish tailors ran for school boards, and James Lindala, the first Finn to settle in Toronto, in 1887, became the first socialist candidate for mayor. The same year, Toronto’s Finnish socialists hired a gifted female activist, Sanna Kannasto (Kallio), as an agitator among Finns in Canada. She criss-crossed the country to lay the groundwork for a national Finnish socialist organization; one community had a socialist newspaper, Työkansa (Working People; Port Arthur, 1907–15). Finnish Canadians also read U.S. socialist newspapers and engaged travelling Finnish-American agitators, organizers, and performers.

In January 1910 the 146 Toronto Finns were ousted from the SPC, accused of clannishness and excessively liberal interpretation of Marxist ideology. In May 1911 Finns offered their brand of socialism to the Canadian Socialist Federation, and in December they made up the majority of the membership of the Social Democratic Party of Canada (SDP).

The organizational efforts of Sanna Kannasto, contacts provided by the newspaper Työkansa, and increased membership led to the founding in October 1911 of a nationwide Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada (FSOC), later the Finnish Organization of Canada (FOC). In 1911 the FSOC had nineteen locals with 1,502 members; a year later it had forty locals and 2,218 members, and when World War I broke out there were sixty-four locals with 3,062 members. All of these also joined the SDP, making Finns the largest ethnic group in the party. Over five hundred Finnish women joined as well.

In 1918, in the midst of the “Red Scare,” the government of Canada declared foreign-language groups of the Social Democratic Party illegal. Undeterred by adversity and the bankruptcy of their organ Työkansa, the Finnish socialists founded Vapaus (Liberty; Sudbury, Ont., 1917–74). The paper was twice banned but soon recovered, and during the 1930s its circulation reached five thousand. After World War I the FSOC flirted briefly with the One Big Union and then gave its support to the new Workers Party of Canada, later the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). For several years during the 1920s all the members of the FOC also belonged to the CPC. Some Finns, especially those working in the lumber camps in northwestern Ontario, decided to join the Industrial Workers of the World, which was unionizing the camps.

The political division within the Finnish communities erupted into open strife after the Finnish Civil War. Some Finns – many of them former members of Finland’s White Guard – founded nationalist organizations in Canada: Turisti in Port Arthur (1926), the Montreal Suomi Society (1927), the Vancouver Valistus-ja Edistysseura Suomi (1928), and the Finnish National Societies in Kirkland Lake, Sudbury, and Toronto, founded between 1930 and 1932. They set up the Central Organization of the Loyal Finns in Canada (COLFC) in 1931 to change Finns’ political image in the country, increase employment opportunities, and destroy communism in Canada.

The influence of Finnish socialists was so strong that during the 1920s and 1930s non-socialist Finns found it difficult to find employment in organized bush camps. The COLFC gave the RCMP and Canadian employers lists of left-wing Finns, and some Loyal Finns used their membership cards in an attempt to get jobs. Many Finnish Lutheran and United Church of Canada pastors helped found the societies, and the COLFC enjoyed the respect and support of the Finnish consuls in Canada. It published a few issues of the newspapers Isänmaan ääni (Voice of the Fatherland; Kirkland Lake, Ont., 1939–?) and Kanadan suomalainen (Finnish Canadian; Montreal, 1939), but its principal organ, Canadan Uutiset (Canadian News; Port Arthur, Thunder Bay, 1915– ), served non-leftist Finnish Canadians.

The role of Finnish Canadians in the labour movement was extraordinary. The minutes of the Lumberworkers Industrial Union of Canada were written in Finnish for the first ten years. Finns also tried to organize mine workers. They supported and participated in strikes, organized some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in northern Ontario, and published a wide range of unionist literature. Many of the demonstrations were precipitated by mining disasters, and one in Port Arthur in 1929 protested the untimely death of two Finns – lumber workers, union organizers, and labour martyrs Viljo Roswall and John Voutilainen. Many mines and some lumber camps blacklisted Finnish workers, and, during the Depression, finding a job was especially difficult for left-wing Finns.

Women were a vital part of socialist activity. During the 1920s at least twenty-seven Finnish women’s groups had affiliated with the Communist-led Canadian Federation of the Women’s Labour League (WLL). Radical women subscribed to the Finnish-American newspaper Toveritar (Female Comrade; 1911–30), which, at the time it was banned by Ottawa in 1929, had over three thousand subscribers in Canada.

The early 1930s witnessed a further break-up of the Finnish-Canadian left as social democrats left the Finnish Organization of Canada. Their departure divided the Finnish consumers’ cooperatives and caused bitter fights over ownership of property. In 1931 social-democratic journalists Reinhold Pehkonen and Bruno Tenhunen founded yet another Finnish-language newspaper, Vapaa Sana (Free Word; Sudbury, Ont., 1931– ). In 1933 the paper threw its support behind the new Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Vapaa Sana moved to Toronto in 1934, and by the end of the decade it had proclaimed itself an independent paper with 3,450 subscribers.

Dissension and unemployment drove many socialist Finns to look towards the Soviet Union for work and a more equitable society. Some Finnish Canadians moved to Soviet-ruled Karelia during the 1920s to establish cooperative communities, and in the 1930s three or four thousand more, many with young children, joined them. Approximately a third soon returned to Finland or to Canada. Of those who remained in the Soviet Union, a majority of the men and older boys were shot or starved to death during the Stalinist purges after 1936. Their families were left in precarious condition and spent World War II in exile in Siberia. The exodus to Soviet Karelia also drained Finnish-Canadian communities of their most able political organizers and supporters.

About one hundred Finnish socialists joined the International Brigade in 1936 and fought against Franco’s forces. They enlisted in Canada’s Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and suffered intolerable conditions, heavy casualties, even imprisonment. Finnish survivors have since then been in the forefront of Canadians seeking recognition of the contribution made by veterans of the Spanish Civil War to the fight against fascism.

When Russia attacked Finland in 1939, launching the Winter War and winning Canadian sympathy for the homeland, Finland aid societies quickly emerged, with Loyal Finns taking a leadership role. Active, too, were the consuls and the Suomen Vapaussodan Rintamamiehet Montrealissa (Finnish War Veterans in Montreal), founded in 1935, which was soon to be known as the Suomen Aseveljet Kanadassa (Finnish War Veterans in Canada). Kingsley Graham, honorary consul of Finland in Toronto, included several prominent Canadians in the project, which raised funds to buy war supplies and recruited over two thousand volunteers. At least 212 men and a few women had left for Finland to be part of the Finnish American Legion by the time peace was declared in March 1940. An additional five hundred men were trained in the basement of Toronto’s Union Station.

Indicative of Canadian sympathy, Premier Mitchell F. Hepburn offered homes in Ontario’s northern clay belt to a half-million Finns from eastern territories that were annexed by the Soviet Union. But on 7 December 1941, after Finland had begun military cooperation with Germany, Ottawa classified Finns as enemy aliens. All aid to Finland ceased, consulates were closed, and Finnish citizens – even Canadian wives of Finns – had to be registered and fingerprinted. About fifty Finnish seamen were interned, and Finnish citizens were forbidden to enter certain militarily sensitive areas. Nationalistic Finns could only watch as socialists worked for the Fund to Aid Russia.

While left-wing Finns enthusiastically supported the struggle against fascism after Hitler attacked Russia, all Finns embraced the war effort in Canada by buying war bonds, working in war industries, and helping the Red Cross. Many also served in the armed forces. After the war, honorary consul Kingsley Graham tried to bridge the gulf within the Finnish-Canadian communities. Both sides cooperated in the Canada Finland Aid Society Fund, which was established in 1946 and raised $60,000 within a year. When postal restrictions were lifted in November 1945, Finnish Canadians sent over 100,000 packages to friends and relatives in the homeland. All Finns, regardless of ideology, could identify with the plight of post-war Finland. Finns finally ceased to be enemy aliens in 1947, when all restrictions against them were removed.

After the Finnish Organization of Canada (FOC) was declared illegal in Canada in 1940, its membership went underground, its properties were confiscated, and its newspaper, Vapaus, was forced to shut down. Former members hastily organized a Finnish Canadian Democratic League, but it had only limited success. The ban on the FOC was lifted in 1943: Canada had in 1941 become an ally of the Soviet Union, whose war efforts the FOC heartily supported. The organization could now throw its weight behind wartime union activity.

Although by 1996 the FOC’s membership had dwindled to about two hundred – most of them senior citizens in Toronto, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Vancouver – its legacy has been carried on by second-generation leaders in unions. Perhaps the best example is Paul Siren, who grew up in a small rural community as a member of a radical Finnish youth organization. During the war he was international representative of the United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) – a position he held along with being director of the UAW for the Toronto area until 1960. In 1965 he was appointed general secretary of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), and he chaired the English-speaking group of the federation from 1973 to 1985. For his union activities, Siren received the Order of Canada.

Social consciousness acquired as young pioneers has inspired some second-generation Finnish Canadians to become vocal social critics. They can be found as volunteers in food banks, as fund-raisers for abused women’s shelters, as environmental- and animal-rights activists, and as participants in the peace movement.

Tension within Finnish-Canadian communities have lost their intensity in recent years. Friendly cooperation, facilitated by a genuine increase in tolerance, is now the norm. Socialists are no longer a political force, and nationalists proposed dissolution of the COLFC in 1993. Finns now promote mutual help and organize non-political social and cultural groups.