Documenting Finnish Lakehead: An Online Exhibition

campWhen we think about the history of Finnish migration to North America, too often we tend to think about Finns in the United States. In Finland, we too easily forget that some 80,000 of the 400,000 Finns who crossed the Atlantic in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries settled north of the U.S., in Canada. There, it was especially Northwestern Ontario that attracted Finnish immigrants. The towns of Port Arthur and Fort William (today Thunder Bay) were from early on major destinations of Finnish settlement and the region remains to this day an important center of Finnish Canadian culture. Finnish migrants and their descendants have left a unique imprint on the region’s cultural, social, and political history.

This rich history can now be appreciated online. The Lakehead Finns (lakeheadfinns.com) is an online historical exhibition about Finnish immigrants’ and their descendants’ experiences in Thunder Bay—or the Lakehead, as the region is also known. The exhibition has been put together by a group of Thunder Bay researchers and community partners with expertise in Finnish Canadian and Lakehead labor history. The result is an intriguing amalgam of historical knowledge on Lakehead’s Finns and illuminating audiovisual material that brings this multifaceted history to life.

The material for the website has been collected from various sources. The most important source has been Michel S. Beaulieu’s Labour at the Lakehead: Ethnicity, Socialism, and Politics, 1900–35, but the webpage also makes use of original archive material. The material has been mainly collected from Lakehead University Library and Archives and Library and Archives of Canada, but other collections—e.g., papers of the Communist Party of Canada and Canadian Security Intelligence Service—have also been consulted.

theatreThe online exhibition focuses on the Lakehead Finns’ culture and politics. Visitors get to read about the rich cultural legacy of Finnish workers at the Lakehead, including their theater productions, musical performances, religious institutions, and sporting activities. Finnish workers’ enthusiasm for sports, for example, can be appreciated by the sheer number of their athletic clubs in Northwestern Ontario. The exhibition lists twenty-three different clubs with names such as Nahjus, Jyry and Isku.

pyramidBut the vast number of clubs was not merely a testament to the Finns’ enthusiasm for sports, but also a reflection of their political division. Sports were heavily politicized in the early 1900s at the Lakehead—as they were also in contemporary Finland—and different political organizations had their own sports clubs. Nahjus, for example, was close to the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, Jyry was associated with a more moderate labor organization, while Isku was a Communist club. The exhibition makes evident that separating culture from politics is not easy with the Lakehead Finns.

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As in the United States, Finnish migrants in Canada were disproportionately well represented in labor unions and radical organizations. Socialism, the IWW, and, after 1917, Communism were all major ideological strains within the Finnish community and Finns established a strong presence in leftist organizations. In 1925, for example, Finns constituted some 60 % of the Communist Party membership in Canada. Finnish radicalism did not go unnoticed from the authorities: in the 1920s and 1930s, Royal Canadian Mounted Police attributed some 15 % of Canada’s “Bolshevik agitation” to Lakehead Finns. The exhibition makes clear that not all Finnish migrants were docile conformists.

The exhibition allows visitors to familiarize themselves with first-hand testimonials regarding labor struggles. Visitors can listen to interviews of Lakehead area workers picked from the Labour History Interview Project, an oral history project completed in 1971–1972 and led by Jean Morrison. The interviewed are not only Finns but workers of varying national backgrounds (Anglo, Swedish, Italian, and Ukrainian). Their reminiscences of workers’ lives in twentieth century Lakehead bring abstract labor history to life. Stories about hard bush camp life, difficulties in union organizing, and everyday realities of radical politics illuminate something of the human effort that went into building the Canadian labor movement. All except one of the featured interviewees are male, which may reflect the gender bias in the original oral history collection. Still, it would have been interesting to hear more about the experiences of working women.

bush camp cookeesThe interviews shed light also on many lesser-known aspects of Canadian labor history. Ivar Seppala’s reminiscences of his time working in Soviet Karelia in the early 1930s illuminate an intriguing and tragic—but largely forgotten—historical experience: the migration of some 6,000 North American Finns, from the US and Canada, to the USSR in the 1930s. This “Karelian fever” reminds us of the transnational character of the early-twentieth century Canadian labor movement. The Lakehead’s workers were actively connected to a world that went far beyond their immediate surroundings in the bush camps and socialist halls.

women and childrenThe online exhibition is also a pleasure to navigate. The exhibition is divided into three thematic subsections (“The People,” “The Politics,” and “The Place”) that all include text blocks and photographic material. The page has a “Gallery” section that includes audio interviews and video clips. The exhibition organizers also ask the general public to send in stories and photographs about life in the Lakehead from 1900–1935, reflecting the interactive aim of the organizers. All in all, as an online exhibition representing ethnic and working-class history, the Lakehead Finns is in many ways exemplary.

Text:  Aleksi Huhta, Doctoral Candidate, Department of European and World History, University of Turku

Images:  Featured in the Gallery of The Lakehead Finns online exhibit, courtesy of Lakehead University Library and Archives

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