Family and Kinship Patterns

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

Finns’ family and kinship patterns have remained constant in Canada. With some regional variations, families were seldom extended and characteristically were small. Most early immigrants were single – estimates vary from 60 to 83 percent for both genders. While men outnumbered women until the 1960s, the imbalance was not as severe as among many other immigrant groups. In 1921 females already made up 44 percent of Canadian Finns, and in 1971, 50 percent. Since then women have consistently outnumbered men, and in 1991 they made up 53 percent of Finnish Canadians.

Compared to other Nordic peoples, the early Finns in Canada were quite endogamous. In 1921, 91 percent of men and 83 percent of women had chosen a spouse of the same nationality (the figures for Swedes were 55 percent for both sexes). Difficulty in learning English kept many Finns insular, and only 3 percent reported English as their mother tongue in 1921. Families were havens for Finnish culture, yet until the 1930s there were very few senior citizens. Most women worked, and many thus delayed getting married and then had few children. For ideological reasons, some Finns lived in common-law unions, further influencing marriage and family statistics. Finns had some of the smallest families in Canada.

The post-war period continued the tradition of small families, but exogamy increased. The second generation has no linguistic barriers to choice of partners, and the community does not discourage exogamy. As a result, in 1986, of the 91,340 Finns in Canada, 50,770 had been born to mixed marriages.

Within families women enjoy relative equality, and daughters the same educational opportunities as sons. In 1986, for example, more Finnish-Canadian women than men had attended university; however, 74 percent of married men were employed, compared with 50 percent of married women. Children are encouraged to be independent and, when able, to work outside the home. They are not generally expected to contribute financially, but great emphasis is placed on frugality and saving.

Family customs differ little from those of Canadians of other northern or western European origins, though families are intensely private. An invitation to visit a Finnish home is a sign of true friendship, and custom dictates that the invitation be reciprocated. Finns rarely visit each others’ homes without being invited. Almost all Finnish homes have a sauna, and families that do not own one are likely to be invited by friends to use theirs. Historically, Finnish communities had public saunas, but today the tradition lives on mainly in the home or at the cottage, where it often includes swimming, jumping into an ice hole, or rolling in the snow. The weekly sauna includes post-sauna relaxation with family and friends.

Finnish homes in Canada display cultural symbols such as home-made handicrafts, rugs and ryijys (ryarugs), wood carvings, and, more recently, textiles, glass, and ceramics. Many women have a traditional folk costume, which is expensive. Reading is popular, and many homes have extensive libraries.

Finnish Canadians eat simple but nutritious meals. Their favourite foods include Karelian pies; mojakka (fish soup); carrot, turnip, and liver casseroles; and rosolli (beetroot and herring salad). At Christmas they import lipeäkala (ludefisk/fish soaked in lye). They eat plenty of hard tack, rye bread, and, for special breakfasts, lettuja (thin pancakes) with their favourite cloudberry and lingonberry jams. Finns in Finland and Canada are among the world’s heaviest coffee drinkers, and with coffee they often have traditional pulla (sweet bread) and gingerbread cookies.

The community is ageing rapidly. Of single-origin Finns 54 percent in 1991 had turned forty-five. The feminization and ageing of the community create an abundance of older, single women. As a rule, Finnish seniors live not with their families but in their own homes or in senior citizens’ centres. One-third of Finns live outside any family environment. In 1986, 31 percent of Finns (excluding children) were single.

Finns have begun to build seniors’ centres across Canada, typically with the word koti (home) in their names. Each such centre has required commitment and voluntary labour of Finns who raised funds and battled bureaucracy. About six thousand people have been involved in creating these homes, which house about one thousand residents. The goal has been private, comfortable, safe, and friendly surroundings that reflect Finnish culture and use the Finnish language. Most homes have been designed by Finnish-Canadian architects and are set near lakes and/or in forests. The centres have grown into modern-day halls, with facilities for meetings and cultural events and, of course, saunas.

The first was founded in Vancouver in 1959 and accepted occupants in 1963. Vancouver homes, in two locations, house 270 people. Building in Ontario began in the 1970s, and today one can find beautiful, modern centres in Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Timmins (South Porcupine), and Toronto. The last named, near public transit, has a 250-seat auditorium, an extensive library, excellent recreational facilities, a medical centre, a pharmacy, and a café-delicatessen; it has become the focus of the Finnish community of Toronto. In 1993 the Finnish Association for Seniors in Canada was established to allow for easier communication between the centres.