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Culture

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

Finnish-Canadian cultural activities reflect the values and ideals of the homeland, yet immigrants have also absorbed Canadian influences. Since the turn of the century almost all Finns have been literate. In Canada they established numerous newspapers and encouraged writers. Organized cultural activity included theatrical groups, choirs, bands, folk dancing, sports competitions, and festivals. Until World War II the leftist organizations generated the most vigorous cultural activity, but after 1945 the centre of gravity shifted to nationalist societies and independent social clubs.

Finnish-Canadian cultural activities reflect Finnish values. Old folk traditions, playing of the kantele, singing of runes, and remnants of the nature religion survived longest in eastern Finland, especially Karelia and parts of Lapland. During the period of national romanticism artists reclaimed the folk traditions as national symbols in music, art, theatre, and literature.

In the immigrant community all organizations, whether political or religious, inevitably grew into cultural centres. During the 1930s there were more than eighty Finnish haali (halls) across Canada. Sixty belonged to the Finnish Organization of Canada, including the first socialist hall, Aallotar, built in 1892 by Finnish coal miners on Vancouver Island. Most halls were rough-hewn log cabins built by volunteers, but a few were imposing, multi-storey cultural centres. One of the first priorities was construction of a stage, and larger halls would house reading rooms and libraries, gymnasiums, meeting rooms, dance floors, and saunas. An early structure was built in 1903 by a Copper Cliff youth organization; “one of the finest opera halls in New Ontario,” it burned down in 1907. Most halls have been destroyed or converted to other uses. Thunder Bay’s Big Hall, however, built in 1909–10, has been declared a historical landmark.

The golden age of Finnish immigrant theatre occurred in the 1920s and 1930s – an era of cultural renaissance. Larger communities had weekly productions, ranging from short one-act plays to elaborate four-act musicals. Enthusiasm for theatre and the shortage of Finnish-language drama encouraged the emergence of playwrights, and Canadian archives contain more than two hundred plays by such writers as Alfred Hautamäki, Jack Koski, Paul Laakso, Aku Päiviö, Magnus Raeus, and John Wirta.

Other published immigrant authors included Kalle Rissanen and Annie Ruissalo. English-language works by immigrants’ descendants sometimes depict early experiences – most notably, Nancy Mattson’s Maria Breaks Her Silence (1989), a volume of poetry inspired by the life of the first woman to settle in New Finland, Saskatchewan.

Between 1921 and 1965, the socialist newspaper Vapaus carried ads for 2,717 full-length plays, 933 short plays, and 1,200 other performances, including variety shows. In order to meet demand, the FOC established a national play-rental service in 1927. During the Depression it owned 252 plays, and in 1935, for example, it rented out plays on nearly five hundred occasions. Theatre also brought income to cultural organizations. Despite the subsequent popularity of movies and television, Finnish theatre groups still operate in Vancouver, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, Timmins, and Toronto. Modern cultural centres, often housed in Finnish homes for seniors, invariably have a stage, and no Finnish-Canadian festival is complete without a theatrical performance.

Brass bands and choirs are integral to Finnish cultural life in Canada. The first recorded Finnish-Canadian brass band was founded on Vancouver Island before 1892 and was soon followed by others in most communities. Brass bands performed at funerals, in May Day parades, and to escort athletes, gymnasts, and other participants at cultural festivals. Many also contributed to political demonstrations, strikes, and marches of the unemployed. Today the tradition survives, mainly in the Pentecostal Church. Some communities import brass bands from Finland to head the march during annual Finnish Grand Festivals. In addition, smaller bands, especially with accordions, are popular at regular community dances.

Traditionally, singing was the vehicle for transmitting Finnish culture and mythology. It has been said that Finns sing everywhere – in lumber camps, in saunas, and at home. Every gathering has a song or two. Hymns, folk songs, and labour and patriotic tunes are an important part of Finns’ choral tradition.

Before World War I several Finnish choirs performed across Canada; since World War II male choirs have been most popular and sing together in special Male Choir Days. The combined Finnish Male Choruses of North America stage impressive concerts in North America and Finland. Larger Finnish congregations have at least one mixed and often a children’s choir. Some choirs have grown into independent cultural societies, which organize tours and have an auxiliary group to raise funds, and some also host and sponsor choirs from Finland. The 1990s have seen the establishment of two ambitious choirs – Vox Finlandiae in Toronto and Octovox in Sudbury. They reach out to Canadian audiences and share their musical tradition in mainstream cultural gatherings.

When Finland was struggling for nationhood, Finnish athletes, especially long-distance runners, gymnasts, wrestlers, and cross-country skiers, distinguished themselves in Olympic competitions. Sports became an integral part of Finnish culture, and successful amateur athletes the nation’s heroes. As well, athletics promoted sisu (tenacity and hardiness).

Canada’s Finnish communities established sports organizations and athletic competitions, beginning about 1900 in temperance societies and socialist groups. In 1906 Finnish sports clubs were founded in Port Arthur, Copper Cliff, and Toronto. Many communities where Finns lived lacked sports facilities altogether; typically Finns would purchase a field close to their hall and transform it into a running track. The hall would offer space for a gymnasium, where both male and female gymnasts could practise. Fund-raising events, such as picnics, dances, and plays, helped pay for equipment. Finnish sports groups, with their organization, sports facilities, and experienced trainers, often assisted other Canadians and opened their competitions to the whole community.

In 1925 various sports clubs organized the Finnish-Canadian Amateur Sports Federation (FCASF). In 1950 this body had eighty-four local clubs with over two thousand members. Its activities included competitions in track and field, skiing, wrestling, and gymnastics. From its ranks rose many athletes to represent Canada on national teams and in the Olympics, most successfully in wrestling, boxing, track and field, biathlon, and cross-country skiing.

Many post-war immigrants felt uncomfortable in the leftist-oriented FCASF and formed their own sport clubs and held national competitions. For example, the Sampo Athletic Club, founded in 1951 in Sudbury, conducted the North American Championship Ski Races in 1958. Sisu Finnish Athletic Club, founded in 1949 in Toronto, runs an annual cross-country skiing competition in Udora, Ontario. Its members represent Canada in orienteering, biathlon, and cross-country skiing. Women gymnasts have also performed in many national celebrations, and folk dancers have participated in multicultural festivals. The best-known Finnish folk-dancing group is Thunder Bay’s Kiikurit.

Fishing, hunting, and sharp-shooting are also popular with Finns in Canada. Anglers’, hunters’, and gun clubs have purchased land and recreational areas outside urban centres and built recreational lodges and wilderness cabins. They stage fishing competitions and hunting excursions. Active clubs exist or have existed in Vancouver, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, Timmins, Sudbury, and Toronto. Many members of gun clubs have competed in national championships in American trap, match rifle, pistols, sporting clay, and sport rifle – perhaps none as successfully as Antero Takkala, who won several medals in the 1994 Canadian national pistol competition. Anglers’ and hunters’ clubs are devoted to the protection of the environment and the preservation of public game domains.

The most popular team sports are pesäpallo (modified baseball), soccer, and hockey. Many National Hockey League (NHL) players have their roots in northern Ontario’s Finnish communities. Now the NHL recruits players directly from Finland. Finnish-Canadian sports clubs have also formed golf clubs and bowling teams.

Cultural and athletic groups perform during Finnish and Canadian holidays. Finnish communities celebrate the festivals of the Christian calendar and, especially, 6 December, Finland’s Independence Day, usually with the Finnish War Veterans in Canada playing a central role. Other celebrations include Juhannus (midsummer) and Vappu (May Day). Finns honour their national epic, Kalevala, on 28 February and their national poet, Runeberg, on 5 February – a special day for Finland’s Swedish minority, of which he was a member (there is even an Order of Runeberg in Vancouver). A relatively new holiday is the irreverent, fun-filled St Urho’s day, invented in 1956 by Minnesota Finns to parody St Patrick’s day. In Thunder Bay the whole Finnish community celebrates the occasion, and even the mayor is known to march in the parade. Toronto had its first St Urho’s day, organized by University of Toronto’s Finnish Club, in 1994.

Vigorous cultural and sporting activity led to annual song and sports festivals. The left established summer festivals and invited choirs, theatrical groups, bands, and athletes from across Canada. In 1956 the FOC and the FCASF formed a committee to organize the annual Laulujuhlat (Song Festival), which, during the 1950s, attracted up to three thousand participants. Today numbers have declined to a few hundred.

Other Finns started their own annual, three-day Suurjuhlat (Grand Festival). The first, to raise funds for Finland Aid, took place in Sudbury in 1940; since 1945 the event has rotated among Finnish-Canadian communities, attracting between one thousand and three thousand participants. In the opening march, all the participating groups carry their banners to the beat of a brass band. In 1971 the organizations set up the umbrella body Finnish Canadian Cultural Federation (FCCF), which lobbies on behalf of its members before government departments in Finland and Canada and offers guidance and assistance in preserving cultural heritage.

Finns began in Canada with hand-written newspapers – the fist-press – available at Finnish halls and sometimes circulated among households. The oldest surviving examples, dated 1894, are from North Wellington on Vancouver Island. Most Finnish papers were political organs and reached a large segment of the population. Two weekly, non-aligned newspapers still survive: Canadan uutiset and Vapaa sana. They have combined circulation of about five thousand and in the mid1990s started English-language sections. A 1996 survey by Vapaa sana found readers interested in news from Finland and the Finnish immigrant community and its people.

The Vapaus Publishing Company started the Finnish-Canadian literary weekly Liekki (The Flame; Sudbury, 1935–74). It provided an avenue of literary expression and a forum for public discussion. Its longtime editor, Aku Päiviö, was an accomplished working-class novelist and poet. Liekki merged with Vapaus as Viikko sanomat (Toronto, 1974–80s), which became Vapaus (Liberty; Toronto, 1980s–91). Since 1991 readers have been able to obtain a bilingual monthly, Kaiku – Echo (Toronto, 1991– ), whose circulation was over 700 in 1996.