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Finnish community Sointula

November 1st, 2018
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Home to British Columbia’s longest-standing cooperative general store (dating to 1909), Sointula is a quaint Finnish colony with a rich history that includes local First Nations, Finnish socialists, and American draft dodgers. The town lies on the south side of Malcolm Island, about a 35-minute sailing from Port McNeill, and is bordered by ethereal rainforests, dramatic rocky shorelines, and spectacular lookouts over the surrounding ocean.

 

The early 20th century was a time when a surge of immigrants came to Canada from all over the world. Many of these immigrants worked in the mines of coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir, whose mansion Craigdarroch Castle is a popular tourist site in Victoria. While many Finns coming to Canada landed in Ontario, where the climate and landscape is more similar to Finland, a number of them came to British Columbia.

 

Like many other immigrants to British Columbia at this time, these Finns often ended up in Dunsmuir’s coal mines. The Finnish miners were renowned for their work ethic, but they disdained the way Dunsmuir exploited his workers. Their solution: leave Dunsmuir’s employment and forge off into the wilderness to fend for themselves. When drawing up plans for their great escape, they called on the Finnish journalist and utopian socialist Matti Kurikka, who already had a history of establishing, or attempting to establish, utopian colonies.

 

They thus founded the Kalevan Kansa Colonization Company and negotiated with the government of British Columbia for land. Settling on Malcom Island, they formed a Finnish community which they aptly named Sointula, Finnish for “place of harmony,” in what was perhaps a defiant stab at the questionable work conditions from which they had fled. Founded on land that was originally home to the ‘Namgis First Nation (who in nearby Alert Bay, boast the world’s tallest totem pole), Sointula was modelled as a co-operative socialist utopia, according to Kurikka’s principals, which included a system of consensus-based decision-making, equal pay for women, and a separate home for children.

 

Unfortunately, Kurikka’s skill at writing did not seem to translate to his attempts at governance, and before long he had bankrupted the community. That setback didn’t stop the stalwart and persevering Finns, however. Armed with a strong sense of “sisu,” a Finnish notion of courage and resilience, the community’s inhabitants continued to live at Sointula and make their living by going further afield to work, seeking jobs in industries such as fishing or logging. More Finns came to the community from Finland following the Second World War, and the community further expanded during the 1960s and 70s with the arrival of American draft dodgers.

 

The Finns’ perseverance paid off––over a century later, the community still stands. The Sointula museum details the town’s unique cultural history, and Sointula enjoys a vibrant arts scene, which can be witnessed in the community’s shops, galleries, and art studios. Because of the island’s small size and relatively far distance from Vancouver Island, the residents have remained about as resourceful as the Finnish immigrants who originally settled there.

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