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Manitoba History: Book Review: Michel S. Beaulieu, David K. Ratz, and Ronald N. Harpelle (eds.), Hard Work Conquers All: Building the Finnish Community in Canada

by Kate MacFarlane
Parks Canada, Ottawa

Number 88, Winter 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Michel S. Beaulieu, David K. Ratz, and Ronald N. Harpelle (eds.), Hard Work Conquers All: Building the Finnish Community in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2018, 252 pages. ISBN 9780774834698, $32.95 (paperback)

Hard Work Conquers All is comprised of an introduction and nine essays telling the story of Finnish immigration and settlement in Canada. Finnish migrants came to Canada in three significant waves, beginning in the decade after Confederation and continuing through the post-Second World War period to the 1980s. The majority settled in Northern Ontario, particularly around Sudbury and Thunder Bay.

The contributors to Hard Work Conquers All are primarily academics, working in both Canada and Finland in the fields of history, economics, and women’s studies. They represent a wide range of interests and expertise: the essays tackle such diverse aspects of Finnish life and culture as their involvement in early Canadian socialist organizations, the participation rates of Finnish men in the First World War, their passion for wrestling, and the people’s strong attachment to place. Each essay is well-crafted, well-documented, and interesting to read. As a book, Hard Work Conquers All not only adds to the history of the Finnish people in Canada, but to the larger literature on Canadian immigration and ethnic history.

In their introduction Beaulieu, Ratz, and Harpelle set the stage for the essays by outlining the historic context of Finnish migration to Canada and providing a detailed examination of the development and current state of Finnish studies in Canada. They point out that while the nine contributors have diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and research interests, the varied essays hold together as a cohesive and valuable work, in part because of the early 20thcentury focus, but also because the authors “situate their research within the wider Canadian context, drawing on research for other immigrant groups” (p. 13).

The collection begins with Michel Beaulieu’s “The Finnish Contribution to Early Canadian Socialist Organizations.” Despite their relatively small numbers, Finnish immigrants contributed significantly to the development of socialism in Canada during the early 20th century, particularly in the Canadian Lakehead region. Many had become radicalized in Finland and found “political refuge in the burgeoning Canadian socialist organizations” (p. 29). J. Donald Wilson’s “Matti Kurikka and the Utopian Socialist Settlement of Sointula, British Columbia,” deals with another aspect of Finnish socialist ideology. Sointula, located on Malcolm Island, British Columbia, was a short-lived, primarily Finnish, egalitarian and cooperative settlement established in 1901. One of its two leaders, Matti Kurikka, was a prominent Finnish socialist and one of the founders of the Labour Party of Finland. Kurikka was part of a larger contribution to the social and intellectual history of Canada, his ideas coinciding with the general spread of socialism in Canada and the questioning of industrial capitalism in the first two decades of the 20th century.

The Finnish-Canadian experience around the time of the First World War has received considerable scholarly attention. Studies have focused on radicalism, labour unrest, social history, and migration, but little has been written on Finnish-Canadian participation in World War One. There has been a general perception that Finnish-Canadians, as a whole, were less interested in joining up. David Ratz, by sampling military documents including attestation papers and nominal rolls, was able to identify more than 300 Finnish Canadian soldiers, a large enough group to help illuminate the Finnish-Canadian experience.

In an intriguing article on “Wrestling, Immigration, and Working-Class Culture: The Finns of the Thunder Bay District before 1939,” C. Nathan Hatton discusses the Finnish passion for and mastery of, wrestling. Prior to the Depression, Finnish wrestlers dominated the sport at the amateur and professional levels in Northern Ontario. Wildly popular in Finland, wrestling continued to play an important role for the early immigrant Finnish community in Canada. It reflected “a working class ideology that melded physical activity and class consciousness” (p. 104). The sport provided a link between the old and new worlds. Its popularity served as a means of linking the Finnish diaspora, and it provided a point of contact between the Finnish community (of athletes and fans) and the greater Canadian community. It also provided a forum in which to excel and raise the Finnish profile within the larger community.

There are two essays which relate specifically to the history of Finnish immigrant women, many of whom served as domestics when they first arrived in Canada. These women were in high demand and appreciated as hard workers, but they were also known to be extremely independent as the title of Varpu Lindström’s article, “I won’t be a Slave!: Finnish Domestics in Canada, 1911–30,” suggests. Domestic service was the most common occupation for Finnish immigrant women. It was considered a good option initially, as it provided room and board and the opportunity to learn English, which helped women settle in their new country. Lindström looks at the pros and cons of domestic service, as well as the organizations and communications networks established by and for Finnish domestics. In “Cookbooks for Upstairs: Ethnicity, Class, and Gender in Perspective,” Hanna Snellman looks at cookbooks written by and for Finnish-Canadian immigrant women in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. For immigrants, traditional foods and dishes provide a link to their country of origin, evoking memories and keeping cultural traditions alive. Food culture is passed on from cook to cook, but also through cookbooks, which are instructional tools in more ways than one. They helped immigrant women cope with a new language by employing a bilingual format, and by including new or different ingredients or customs, all of which was very important for immigrant women beginning their new lives—personal or professional—in Canada.

Over time, the Finnish community faced the same challenges as many other ethnic immigrant groups, as younger generations, born in Canada, began to lose their connection to their Finnish culture. The essays by Tanya Tuohimaa and Samira Saramo examine other means of cultural preservation and transmission (beyond cookbooks). In “Dear Jussi-setä: Generation, Language and Community in the Youth Pages of Vapaus, 1945–60,” Tuohimaa examines the youth page Perheen Nuoreimille (“For the Family’s Youngest”) of the left wing Finnish-Canadian newspaper Vapaus. Working with a large sample (95) of letters by the editors and by the children who wrote in (672), she looks at the ways in which the page was used to promote cultural preservation (particularly language use) in the younger generation. Saramo, author of “Terveisiä A Century of Finnish immigrant Letters” analyzed a large, random sample of immigrant Finnish letters (125 letters of 55 writers, over a span of 100 years) “through the lens of social history in order to see how such an approach contributes to our understanding of Finnish life in Canada and the Canadian immigrant experience more broadly” (p. 165). While the style and contents of the letters are as varied as the authors themselves, they provide a fascinating—sometimes funny, sometimes poignant—look at the lives of these immigrants; their struggles to find work or learn English, their longing for home, and their gradual adjustment to their new life and circumstances.

The final essay, by Antti Häkkinen, “From Bush to Bay Street: The Finnish Community of Thunder Bay as Memories, Narratives and Experiences,” looks at the significance of the natural and built environments of Thunder Bay and environs to the Finnish population. He based his work on a series of interviews with locals of Finnish extraction, of different ages, genders and backgrounds.

Today, there are roughly 130,000 people of Finnish origin or descent in Canada. Hard Work Conquers All is their story. It tells of the early community, its struggles, passions (wrestling!) and achievements. This clever selection of diverse and intriguing aspects of the Finnish-Canadian culture and experience adds a valuable, specifically Finnish chapter to the larger history of immigration to Canada.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 14 April 2021

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