Group Maintenance and Ethnic Commitment

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

The ageing community is in transition. The Finnish language is rapidly being replaced by English, and exogamy is transforming a formerly homogeneous community. In response the community is intensifying language instruction and at the same time shifting to English in its cultural institutions. Group maintenance has also been enhanced by close links to Finland.

In the 1991 Canada census 24,905 Finns reported Finnish as their mother tongue; one-third of them were born outside Finland. In addition, many second-generation Finns have some proficiency in Finnish, obtained at home or through language schools. Before World War II churches and other organizations held regular Finnish classes, and Finnish-language summer camps have always been popular. Usually, language instruction was combined with information on Finnish culture or indoctrination of parents’ ideology. Language classes in churches took the form of religious instruction in Sunday schools. Loyal Finns incorporated Finnish nationalism into their curriculum, while many language schools run by the Finnish Organization of Canada used socialist textbooks. Instruction generally, however, was sporadic, and teachers were usually untrained volunteers.

The post-war period saw more professional and institutionalized instruction. In 1984 the Finnish Language Teachers Association of Canada (FLTAC) was founded in Ottawa, and it organizes annual training seminars for teachers. Instruction grew from twenty teachers in seven schools in 1982 to about fifty teachers in twelve schools in 1996, with about 600 pupils. Two-thirds of the students report a language other than Finnish as their mother tongue. The Toronto Finnish Language School has annually sponsored a summer language camp with 50 to 100 pupils. Finnish is usually taught as part of Ontario’s International Languages Elementary and Continuing Education Program. Credit courses are offered in Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Toronto. In addition it is possible to study Finnish in language schools in Edmonton, Hearst, Montreal, Ottawa, South Porcupine, Vancouver, and Victoria.

Several universities now offer Finnish studies. In the 1970s Lakehead University in Thunder Bay began to offer Finnish-language courses. The Canadian Suomi Foundation, with community support, is raising funds to establish a permanent rotating chair (professorship) of Finnish culture. Since its founding in Thunder Bay in 1977 it has given out annual scholarships.

In 1989 the University of Toronto began accepting students in Finnish studies; the first professor is Börje Vähämäki. The program’s ten courses include one on the Finnish immigrant experience in Canada, and Finnish can be a minor or a major subject. The program attracts fifty to sixty students annually, and since 1997 it has published the Journal of Finnish Studies (Toronto, 1997– ). It is raising funds with the help of the Canadian Friends of Finland Education Foundation (CFFEF) to establish a permanent university chair. The Finno-Ugric Studies Association of Canada holds biannual meetings of scholars in connection with the Learned Societies of Canada and publishes its proceedings.

Except during the war years, correspondence has helped maintain personal and family ties with Finland. Most immigrant letters contained common subjects – working conditions, standard of living, family news, homesickness, information on parcels mailed to Finland – and many included photographs. After World War II telephone contact became frequent, as has e-mail in the 1990s.

Early travel to Finland was expensive and time-consuming, and few immigrants went home except because of family illness or death, and they might stay for months, sometimes years. During the 1920s the Swedish American Line began to plan group excursions to Finland. Several hundred Finnish Canadians were planning to depart for the Helsinki Olympics of 1940, which had to be cancelled because of the war. Post-war immigrants have travelled to Finland mainly by air. Finnish groups and travel agents began to organize charter flights, and in 1989 Finnair began direct flights to Canada.

The government of Finland has also tried to serve the needs of Finnish Canadians. In 1923 Akseli Rauanheimo was appointed first Finnish consul in Canada, with an office in Montreal, where most Finns arrived during the years of heaviest immigration. An advocate for immigrants’ rights, Rauanheimo spent endless hours assisting injured and sick immigrants anxious to return to Finland or seeking compensation in Canada, and he helped found Montreal’s Finnish Immigrant Home, which opened in 1927. He was also concerned with strife between Finnish “reds” and “whites” in Canada.

A network of honorary consuls helped Finnish Canadians with translating documents, obtaining passports, and arranging estates and other legal matters. During the Winter War they organized volunteers to fight in Finland, raised money, and solicited the Canadian government for supplies and materiel. During the summer of 1941, however, these efforts ceased because of Finland’s association with Germany, and diplomatic ties were severed when Canada declared war on Finland on 7 December 1941. Until 1947 Finns were served by the Swedish consulates in Canada.

Finland now has a fully staffed embassy in Ottawa, trade commissions and consular offices in Toronto and Vancouver, and honorary consuls in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, Timmins, Sudbury, Montreal, and Saint John. During Finland’s elections, immigrants who have retained citizenship can cast their votes at the consulates. Intergovernmental agreements facilitate exchange in social services – most significantly, coordination of pensions. Finnish performers and choirs had North American tours before 1939, and since the war cultural exchange has intensified, sponsored by governments and/or the private sector. Perhaps the liveliest traffic is between the many choirs of both countries, but sports and student exchanges are also significant.

The National Broadcasting Company of Finland airs regular radio programs designed for Finnish North Americans. Its news broadcasts offer current information about Finland. Thunder Bay broadcasts a regular television program, and radio shows have enjoyed intermittent success in Vancouver and Thunder Bay. As well, Suomi-seura (Finland Society), founded in Helsinki in 1927, promotes close ties with Finns abroad, especially through its bi-monthly magazine, Suomen silta (Bridge to Finland; Helsinki, 1927–). The society was among the first bodies to promote group and charter travel between Finland and Canada.

In 1982 the Canadian Friends of Finland (CFF), supported by the International Affairs Branch of Finland’s Ministry of Education, was founded in Toronto to facilitate cultural exchange and cooperation. Within a decade its membership grew to one thousand. Its activities, in English or French, occur mainly in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver, with some activity in Sault Ste Marie.

Several generations of Finns coexist in Canada today. The present challenge for the communities is to provide support and cultural activities to all segments. Their future, at least for the next generation, looks bright. Finns have become well integrated; the majority are born of mixed marriages, and over 90 percent are Canadian citizens. They are not subject to overt discrimination and have learned to tolerate differences within their own communities. Their home country is a prosperous democracy, which welcomes cultural exchange and Finnish-Canadian visitors. In Canada, Finnish speakers find television and radio programming, newspapers, and community services in their own language. Increasingly the community is also looking after the cultural needs of English-speaking Finns. Finnish is taught in many schools, and older people are well cared for in several senior citizens’ homes.

The greatest challenges for the community are to handle with sensitivity the transition from use of the Finnish language to use of English and to continue to uphold Finnish cultural values at a time when immigration from Finland is virtually non-existent.