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Emigration from Finland to Canada Before the First World War

Reino Kero

About 300,000 emigrants left Finland for countries overseas before the First World War. The early phases of Finnish emigration are the years in the early 1850's, when, because of theCalifornia gold fever, Finnish sailors began to desert ships sailing in American coastal waters. In the 1860's the rural population in some parts of Oulu and Vaasa provinces also became interested in America and the opportunities it offered to emigrants. By the early 1870's we can begin to speak about Finnish mass emigration, but still the number of Finnish overseas emigrants during the whole decade was only about 3,000. In the 1880's their number increased to about 36,000. In the 1890's about 60,000 emigrants left Finland. The peak of emigration was reached during the first decade of the 20th century, when about 150,000 people left Finland. During the First World War emigration was very weak. Because of the powerful tide of emigration of the early 1910's the number of emigrants during the whole of the 1910's was about 80,000. In the 1920's about 60,000 Finns left their homeland.1

Official emigration statistics in Finland do not include information on emigration to Canada before 1924. Emigration statistics were compiled only under the broad heading: "emigrants to countries overseas", which means that both the emigrants to the USA and Canada are included in the same tables. This absence of statistical material has perhaps been one reason why very little is known about the early Finnish emigration to Canada. However, quite a bit of information on early emigration to Canada is available if one uses passport lists, passenger lists, and the letters from Canada which were published both in Finnish and Finnish-American newspapers.

Recruiters of Immigrants to Canada

In the 19th century almost all Nordic overseas emigrants went to the USA. Emigrating to Canada was quite exceptional. However, from the advertisements in Finnish newspapers it can be learnt that at least the Canadian Pacific Railroad was to some extent interested in recruiting a work-force or residents from the Nordic countries. The emigrants who came from Norway, Sweden and Finland must have been from the Canadian point of view ideal settlers, because these immigrants came from areas that were geographically quite similar to Canada.

How much recruiting of immigrants to Canada occurred in Finland? And what kind of immigrants did Canada want to get from Finland?

Recruiting of immigrants was not allowed by the Finnish authorities in the 1870's and in the early 1880's. That is why recruiting had to take place in secrecy, and why the recruiting was perhaps more extensive than the few sources reveal.

In 1874, the Uusi Suometar and Sanomia Turusta published selections from a Finnish-language book on Canada by "Colonel H. Mattsoa".2 The sending of this book to Finland marked the first attempt to recruit Finns to Canada. In this book Canada was praised to the skies.

Did Mattson succeed in recruiting immigrants? It is probable that his attempt totally failed. The Swedish passenger lists in the 1870's cover practically all the Finnish emigrants, and in 1874 no names of Finns going to Canada can be found in the passenger lists. So it appears that this recruiting attempt was quite fruitless.

The second attempt to recruit immigrants from Finland to Canada seems to have occurred in 1883. Of course it is possible that some attempts were made between the years 1874 and 1883, but anyway no Finnish sources tell about recruiting. Newspapers in 1883 recounted that in the southern parts of Ostrobothnia maps of Canada with Finnish-language texts were being distributed.3 The authorities seized a part of this material and destroyed it. So we have no original copies of those maps. According to newspaper articles Canada was again praised to the skies. It is probable that the Canadian Pacific Railroad was behind this attempt to get either would-be workers or farmers from Finland. The maps were printed in Nor way, which may mean that there was an agent in Norway and that immigrants perhaps were recruited from other Nordic countries, too.

According to information available in Swedish passenger lists some emigrants had left Finland for Canada in 1880 and 1881, but in the spring of 1883 more emigrants left for Canada than earlier. One particular group of 26 Finnish emigrants which is mentioned in the Swedish passenger lists and which had tickets to Thornbury, Ont., could have been recruited. It is also possible that the small groups travelling to Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Collingwood, Ont., and Allandale, Ont., were recruited.

In the late 1890's reruiting to Canada was attempted through advertisements in Finnish newspapers. The Canadian Pacific Railroad tried to lure emigrants from Finland. The company had a Swedish agent named N. D. Ennis, who in 1895 was urging Finns to travel to "sunny Canada and become rich". In 1895 the Finland Steamship Company also seems to have been acting on behalf of the C.P.R. Advertisements by N. D. Ennis are also found in newspapers for 1897 and for 1899. Offers of free land in Canada to men over 18-years old was almost regularly used as a propaganda trump.4

A delegation from Finland travelled to Canada in the summer of 1899 to find a place for "New Finland". This was a result of the Russification attempts in Finland, but the Canadian authorities also seem to have been interested in "importing" Finnish immigrants.5 It seems, however, that the propaganda operations directed in the 1890's from Canada to Finland did not reach a very great percentage of the Finnish population interested in emigrating. The recruiting of the year 1899 may have been the last attempt to get immigrants from Finland to Canada. Still in 1903 the Canadian authorities were interested in getting Finnish immigrants.6 Emigration to Canada grew during the first 10-15 years of the 20th century, but probably not because of recruiting.

Departure Areas in Finland

The passenger lists mention only that the emigrant comes from Finland; they do not include the localities of departure. It would be interesting to know, however, if the Finns leaving for Canada came from the same area of powerful emigration from which the emigrants to the USA came.

When the emigrants left Finland, they needed a passport and their names written in passport lists which included the home locality of the emigrant, too. On the other hand the destination mentioned is usually only "Amerikka". Thus only if one compares the names in the passport lists with the names on the passenger lists can one find out where the emigrants to Canada came from. This, however, requires much work. At the moment only information on the years 1890, 1905 and 1913 is available. The statistical material concerning the emigrants of the year 1905 is better than that concerning the years 1890 and 1913.

My sample of the year 1905 covers 15,837 Finnish emigrants whose place of departure and place of destination are known. Nine hundred and sixty-seven of these emigrants had their destination in Canada (those whose destination in the list is Quebec or Halifax have been excluded).7 There were 6 communes (Karvia, Karijoki, Kauhajoki, Jalasjärvi, Alavus, and Lapua) from which the number of Canada-bound emigrants was at least 30. In addition to this there were 6 communes with at least 20 emigrants (Isojoki, Kurikka, Kauhava, Alajärvi, Ähtäri, Saarijärvi and Helsinki). All these communes, excluding Helsinki, are located in the southern parts of Vaasa Province or in the northern parts of Turku and Pori Province, and it seems that a special area of emigration from Finland to Canada can be delineated. The boundary of this area could be drawn in such a way as to include Pori, Ulvila, Noormarkku, Kankaanpää, Jämijärvi, Ikaalinen, Kuru, Ruovesi, Keuruu, Multia, Saarijärvi, Viitasaari, Kivijärvi, Karstula,Alajärvi, Lapua, Kauhava, Ylistaro, Ilmajoki, Kurikka, Teuva, Karijoki, Isojoki, Siikainen, Ahlainen, and the communes within this circle.8 The number of emigrants here with a destination in Canada was 499. In all other parts of Finland their number was 468. Thus about 51.6 % of the emigrants to Canada came from this small Canada-bound area, while only about 30 % of all emigrants overseas in 1905 were from this area.9 The core area of this emigration comprised the communes of Karijoki, Isojoki, Kauhajoki, Karvia, Jalasjärvi, Peraseinäjoki, Alavus, Ähtäri and Saarijärvi. Two hundred and fifty-five emigrants heft these communes for Canada. This was about 26 % of the total of the Finnish emigration to Canada. In 1905, according to official emigration statistics, about 8 % of the total overseas emigration was from this group of communes.

The sample of the year 1890 covers only 36 emigrants whose place of departure and place of desintation is known. Twenty (55.6 %) of these came from the Canada-bound area mentioned above, while the number from other parts of Finland was only 16.

The sample of the year 1913 covers about 50 % of the Finnish emigrants travelling on the Allan Line and C.P.R. to Canada. Again those having a ticket to Quebec and Halifax have been excluded. The sample includes 830 emigrants, which was almost 24 % of the Finns emigrating to Canada in 1913. Of these emigrants 417 or about 50 % came from the Canada-bound area mentioned above, and 143 (17.2 %) from the core area mentioned above. According to offical emigration statistics the total number of overseas emigrants in 1913 from these areas were 4,683 (23.3 % of total Finnish emigration overseas), and 1,178 (5.9 %) respectively.

On the basis of the three above-mentioned samples we can ague that a certain group of communes formed the hard-core area of Finnish emigration to Canada. This core area of emigration to Canada belonged to that part of Finland from which emigration overseas was strong. However, this Canada-bound area was only a small part of the total area in Finland from which emigration was strong. It is especially interesting that emigration to Canada was very weak in the northern parts of Vaasa Province, where emigration to the USA was very strong.

If the communes with many Canada-bound emigrants are compared with each other, we learn that in 1905 many emigrants from the northernmost part of this area left for Alberta and British Columbia, while the southernmost parts "sent" their emigrants especially to Ontario. In the 1913 sample it is more difficult to see any differences between the communes. It is also worth mentioning that in Ostrobothnia the number of Swedish-speaking emigrants with a destination in Canada was very small. Those coming from the Swedish-speaking communes usually went to some localities in Ontario.

We could now ask why emigration to Canada had its core area in the southern parts of Vaasa Province and in some communes of Turku and Pori Province. Why were emigrants in some communes not only interested in emigrating to the USA but also to Canada, while in other communes they emigrated to the USA? My hypothesis is that the time of the commencement of the emigration was the decisive factor. In Oulu Province as well as in the northern parts of Vaasa Province emigration to the USA had already begun in the 1860's and 1870's. In the area of Canada-bound emigration people began to leave for countries overseas only in the early 1880's; there was no tradition of emigration in the area earlier. The early 1880's were the years when the first emigrants left Finland for Canada, and it is probable that the first emigrants to Canada came from the southern parts of Ostrobothnia.10

When the first emigrants settled in Canada, they wrote to their friends and relatives in their home parishes and promised to help the newcomers to get work in Canada. Those leaving the Finnish village like to emigrate to localities where they could meet old friends and relatives, who could help them in overcoming the difficulties the immigrants had to face on their arrival in the New World. In this way emigration from a particular locality tended to be directed in the same destination (or destinations) in the USA or Canada. A tradition was born, and these traditions were very strong among the migrants. In some areas people used to move to Finnish cities, in some areas to the eastern parts of the USA, in some areas to Russia, and in the Karijoki-Saarijarvi area Canada was year after year favored more than in other parts of Finland.

The Early Destinations of Finns in Canada

On the basis of letters published in Finnish-American newspapers we know that the first Finnish immigrants had come to Canada at least as early as the 1870's after having been for some years in the USA. It is hardly likely that any direct emigration from Finland to Canada took place.

The Swedish passenger lists cover practically all the Finnish emigrants in the 1870's and 1880's. The destinations of the emigrants are also mentioned in these lists. Sometimes the destination is simply Quebec, New York, Boston, or Portland. In these cases the immigrant had a ticket to the harbor town mentioned in the list, but his final destination was sometimes in the neighborhood of the harbor town or sometimes far from it. For instance, the immigrants who had a ticket to Quebec usually went on to destinations in the USA. On the other hand when the destination mentioned in the list was Port Arthur, Thunder Bay, or other small localities, we know quite exactly the area to which the immigrant was travelling.11

On the basis of the passenger lists we can see that the first Finnish emigrants who clearly intended to go to Canada left Finland in 1880. This was a group ofd twelve men travelling to Thunder Bay, Ont. The next year three men had tickets to Sarnia, Ontario, but in 1882 there were no Finnish emigrants travelling to Canada. From 1883 onwards, however, there were annually at least some Finnish emigrants whose destination was somewhere in Canada.

As mentioned about; the Swedish passenger lists cover practically all the Finnish overseas emigrants in .the 1870's and 1880's. Even in 1890 and 1891 these lists cover at least half of all Finnish overseas emigrants. Unfortunately the most important passenger lists from 1892 up to the year 1899, those of Suomen Höyrylaiva Osakeyhtiö, the Finland Steamship Company, have disappeared. Thus when studying the early Finnish emigration to Canada one can get reliable material only up to the year 1891. Up to the end of that year there were 902 Finnish emigrants who had bought a ticket to Canada. Those having a ticket to Quebec are not included in this figure. Among these 902 emigrants there were 83 emigrants whose destination was Montreal and 296 emigrants with a ticket to Ottawa, Ontario. These Montreal and Ottawa emigrants may have had as their destination a place outside or beyond the cities of Montreal and Ottawa. It is even possible that their real destination was a place in the USA. Thus all we can be sure of is that the number of Finnish emigrants with their place of destination in Canada before the year 1892 was at least 623.

Up to the end of the year 1891 about 54,000 Finns left for countries overseas.12 Thus the group of Finnish emigrants leaving for Canada was only about 1 % of the total overseas emigration. About 98 % had their destination in the USA. Canada was the destination of about 1 % of the emigrants, and some travelled to Austrailia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. By the beginning of the twentieth century the importance of Canada was already much greater. On the basis of passenger lists we know the destinations of 15,837 emigrants leaving Finland in 1905. Of these emigrants 948 had their destination in Canada. This was about 6 % of the total overseas emigration. Because some of those emigrants with a ticket to Quebec also travelled to Canada, the real number of Finnish emigrants was more than 1,000 in that year.

According to Canadian source material about 1,000 Finnish immigrants came yearly to Canada in the beginning of the twentieth century. In the early 1910's they were already showing more interest in Canada. In 1913 the number of Finnish immigrants was as high as 3,508. In that year according to official Finnish emigration statistics the number of Finnish emigrants overseas was 20,057.13 Thus about 17 % of Finnish emigrants probably had their destination in Canada. For some years in the 1920's emigration from Finland to Canada was stronger than to the USA.

The first Finnish immigrant group had its destination in Thunder Bay, Ont. In the early Finnish emigration to Canada, Ontario was the most important of the Canadian provinces, as has been the case later, too. In the years 1880-91 the Finnish immigrants had ticket to the following localities14 in Ontario:



Port Arthur










Thunder Bay






















The total number of Finnish emigrants with a ticket to Ontario was 627, but emigrants with a ticket to Ottawa may have travelled to a destination outside Ottawa. The most important destinations were in fact Port Arthur and Sudbury, which have later been very important localities for the Finns coming to Canada. There was in addition to these a group of localities where the number of Finns has always been small. Allandale and Murillo are perhaps good examples.

It was in 1883 that the first Finnish emigrant bought a ticket to Winnipeg, Manitoba. During the period 1883-91, 178 emigrants had a ticket to the same place. Winnipeg has not been among the most important localities for Finns in Canada. That is why it is possible that these immigrants did not stay in Winnipeg; on the other hand it is probable that their destination was somewhere in the neighborhood of Winnipeg. The emigration to Winnipeg could have something to do with the construction of railroads by the C.P.R. If the emigration of the 1880's to Manitoba is compared with that of the year 1905 we find that in 1905 the number of Finnish emigrants to Manitoba was smaller than in the peak years of the 1880's. In 1905 only 23 Finnish emigrants had their place of destination in Manitoba.

According to passenger lists Saskatchewan and Alberta did not receive Finnish immigrants in the years 1880-91. And even later these provinces received only a few Finns. For example, in 1905 Saskatchewan received no Finnish immigrants, and the number of those with a destination in Alberta was according to passenger lists only 40.

The first Finnish emigrants with a ticket to British Columbia can be found in the passenger lists of the year 1888. However, in 1888-91 the number of Finns with their destination in British Columbia was only 14. Eight emigrants went to Vancouver, and in addition to this some emigrants travelled to Nanaimo, Victoria and New Westminster.

On the basis of articles published in Finnish-American newspapers it seems probable that the Finnish immigrants in the USA began to be interested in British Columbia at the same time (at the end of the 1880's), when the first immigrants were coming directly from Finland to British Columbia. Letter published in Finnish-American newspapers tell about Finns moving at this time from the USA to the western parts of Canada. In 1905, Finns emigrated from Finland to 20 localities in British Columbia. The total number of emigrants was, however, only 67, and no locality received more than 7 Finnish immigrants.

The early Finnish emigration to Canada was heavily male-dominated. Among the 902 emigrants with a ticket to Canada there were 82 women and 820 men. The percentage of women was thus only about 9 per cent. At the same time in the years 1880-91 about 25 % of all overseas Finnish emigrants were women. Still in the beginning of the 20th century the male-domination of emigration from Finland to Canada was very clear. In 1905 only about 20 % of emigrants to Canada were women, while that of the total emigration overseas was about 31 %. In the emigration of the 1920's the percentage of women may already have been greater, and it is probable that the whole emigration of the 1920's was very different from the early Finnish emigration to Canada.


1 For further information on the number of Finnish emigrants see Reino Kero, Migration from Finland to North America in the Years between the United States Civil War and the First World War. Turku 1974, pp. 24-47.

2 Uusi Suometar, July 20, 1874; Sanomia Turusta, July 17, 1874.

3 Satakunta, July 7, 1883.

4 For example, Wasa Tidning, January 4, 1895, February 2, 1897; Satakunta, May 6, 1899.

5 Konni Zilliacus, Tanken att i Kanada samla utvandrarne från Finland. Ateneum 1899, pp. 292-300. See also George Maude, Finland and Britain 1854-1914. London University Ph.D. 1970, pp. 224, 248-249.

6 Maude 1970, p. 249.

7 Those having a ticket to either Quebec or Halifax usually had their final destination in the USA.

8 It is very difficult to draw a boundary between areas which would differ substantially from each other in regard to emigration to Canada, because there were no clear boundaries. For this reason it is possible that some more communes might be included in the Canada-bound area than appear on the map, or that some communes might even be excluded.

9 Suomen Virallinen Tilasto XXVIII:10:Table X.

10 The passenger lists of Gothenburg for 1880 include information on the home parish of some Finnish emigrants, and same of the first group of emigrants to Canada seem to have been from the neighborhood of Kristiinankaupunki.

11 For further information on the final destinations of Finnish emigrants see Kero 1974, pp. 190-195.

12 Kern 1974, pp. 24-34.

13 Suomen Virallinen Tilasto XXVIII:l0:Table X.

14 The names have been written as they appear in the passenger lists.

Published in The Lakehead University Review, 9(1976), p. 7-16.

© Reino Kero

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