Manitoba History: Review: Charles M. Sutyla, The Finnish Sauna in Manitoba

by Zita McRobbie-Utasi

Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

Charles M. Sutyla’s study is a very commendable survey of Manitoba Finnish settlements, focusing on the institution of the sauna in terms of its physical structure but especially with regard to significant social changes connected with the maintenance and development of the sauna-culture. Sutyla’s work is based upon field-work among Finnish settlements in Manitoba during the summer of 1976. The author’s conclusion that the sauna is an evolving cultural form and serves a reliable index of Finnish culture change” (p. iv) is convincingly presented.

The first section “From Finland to Canada” gives a brief historical and cultural background of Finland, emphasizing factors which led to mass emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A brief statistical survey sets out the geographical patterns and scale of immigration. It shows that Manitoba is a relatively insignificant area of Finnish settlement—out of 59,215 Finns in Canada only 1,455 resided in Manitoba in 1971 (p. 7). The author describes here six rural settlements (Elma, Riverland-Newcomb, Pointe du Bois, Eriksdale, Meadow Portage and Rorketon), and indicates that Pointe du Bois will later be shown to have special significance in the survival of Finnish cultural traditions. The second section “The Sauna Tradition in Finland” supplies a brief but very informative description of the history and development of the sauna as an institution and as an indicator of national identity. The physical characteristics and the types of the sauna are given, plus a description of the rituals of bathing.

The material gathered during the author’s fieldwork is described and analysed in the third section “The Sauna in Canada” (perhaps “in Manitoba” would have been more appropriate). A detailed description of the existing sauna structures was rightly deemed necessary, for “a number of the buildings described will be gone within a few years” (p. 41). Old time immigrants revealed the survival of sauna culture traditions, such as giving birth in the sauna—”Mrs. W. ... gave birth to four of her seven children in their sauna” (p. 41)—in Meadow Portage in the 1920s: there is also the tradition of the healer or tietaja in the 1930s, the sauna being the place for “cupping with horns and blood letting for therapeutic purposes” (p. 43).

Of wide interest and significance is the author’s analysis of the social context of the sauna institution in relation to these settlements both past and present. A reasoned discussion of the chances of the survival of the sauna concludes the description of each rural settlement. Thus. predominantly recreational areas are most likely to carry on the sauna-culture. An excellent example is Pointe du Bois where, beside the 25-30 local Finns, 80-100 Finns presently go for holidays or at the weekends. A convincing account of the social—indeed ideological—circumstances surrounding the sauna appears in the sub-section dealing with the Winnipeg Finns. where Sutyla makes clear why a split between old-time immigrants and those coming in the 1950s occurred. This section provides an illuminating account of the socioeconomic differences between early and later immigrant groups, and shows how these were reflected in their attitude toward the sauna tradition. We learn that the early immigrants had suffered forms of discrimination which caused them to reject those things which were symbols of their national identities—“and what is more Finnish than the sauna” (p. 96). Due to prevailing political attitudes the Finns in those times were regarded as left-wing “radicals”. Coupled with this was a lack of understanding of the use and significance of the sauna by suspiciously puritanical Canadians. The immigrants after the 1950s did not have to face these problems. The somewhat easier economic conditions of life, together with the world-wide discovery and fashion of the sauna bath, made it quite natural for them to continue their old-country sauna-culture. Apparently these newer immigrants are the ones who own most of the cottages in Pointe du Bois or otherwise take advantage of the leisure facilities there. For them to own a cottage with a sauna there lends social prestige.

A description of the spread of sauna building among non-Finns is also given (pp. 99-101). Regarding the architectural characteristics of the sauna buildings, the reader learns of the transformation of the old-type smoke sauna or savusauna (the only one still existing is in Rorketon) into electric and gas heated saunas (p. 106). There is a short account of Estonian and Dukhobor saunas in the province (pp. 101-5) but this is of doubtful relevance. The Estonian sauna material is too little to provide any significant parallels to the main topic, and the decline of the Dukhobor bania or Russian steam bath is unrelated to the Finnish experience.

Finally, references to two other studies [1] and their brief evaluation (p. 108) suggest that there is no significant work on saunas in Canada comparable in method and approach with the present study Scholars should be encouraged by Sutyla’s work to make other surveys in more significant Finnish communities in Canada It may be perhaps suggested that reference to relevant studies in the U.S. would have helped the reader to view the topic in a wider perspective. The author’s theories are convincingly supported by the analysis he presents, and subsequent studies may substantiate the results Sutyla has been able to achieve in this small Finnish populated area. The numerous photographs are of great documentary value.


1. Matt T. Salo. Finnish Folk Crafts in Canada (Unpublished report prepared for the Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies National Museum Ottawa. 19721. E. Kongas Maranda. The Finnish Sauna in British Columbia ‘Unpublished report prepared for the Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies. National Museum, Ottawa. 1974).

Page revised: 23 April 2010