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Finnish settlement in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

Immigration and Settlement

The first Finnish immigrants to Thunder Bay district arrived before the turn of the century. Documented proof shows a Finnish family came to Prince Arthur's Landing (as Port Arthur was known then) in 1876 from the United States. Other families followed, for the Canadian Pacific Railway was hiring men to work on construction of the railroad.

The first known arrival from Finland came in 1888. By the year 1911 there were 1068 Finnish immigrants in Port Arthur and 575 in Fort William, for a total of 1643. (These two cities plus two adjoining municipalities amalgamated in 1970 to form the city of Thunder Bay.)

Immigration from Finland continued as political and religious unrest was rampant. Poor economic conditions also contributed to the decision of the people to seek a better living elsewhere.

Finland, which had been for centuries under the domination of either Sweden or Russia, finally gained her independence in 1917. This was a proud day for a small nation, but the aftermath accounted for the second wave (1920-1930) of immigrants to Canada. The scars left after the civil war, which broke out after independence, forced many to leave the homeland.

And a third wave (1950-1960) of immigration to Canada took place after yet another upheaval in the political life following two brief but costly wars.

The number of Finnish people in Thunder Bay district is difficult to determine - a figure of 15,000 is often quoted.

The early Finns tended to settle in the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William and also in the townships along the P&D Railroad near the Silver Mountain mine.

It was lot long before each community had its own organizations, the first being a Lutheran Church congregation in the early 1890's. Next to appear, were the temperance societies and by 1903 the first Finnish workingman's organization was formed in Port Arthur and four years later another one in Fort William came into being.

The workingman's organizations were locals of the Socialist Party of Canada (1907-1910) until their expulsion from the party. A year later they became a part of the founding ethnic organizations of the Social Democratic Party of Canada (1911-1918) but after seven years the party was declared illegal.

Finnish men and women gained the reputation of being hard workers - also honesty and reliability were traits always attributed to them.

The men worked primarily as general labourers for timber companies, railways and in the construction industry. The women were employed as hotel staff, domestics or store clerks.

A "back to the land" movement among the Finns started about 1912, when a homestead - 160 acres of land - was available to any male over 18 years of age for $1.50. Many of the settlements of those days still retain their Finnish names.

The land provided at best, a mere subsistence, and so many had to rely on work elsewhere to provide the necessities of life. Quite often the husband would leave his wife and children to look after the farm while he earned a living at some paying job.

The sale of timber brought in some money, and later the raising of hens and of cows augmented the family income. To dispose of the eggs, milk and other produce, co-operative stores and the co-op dairy were formed. The stores also were a big help for the farmer in getting his supplies.

By the 1930's many of these rural settlements had their own co-operative and private stores and also community built halls and schools.

Unions and Co-ops

Finnish workers have always been active in union affairs As early as 1919, when One Big Union (O.B.U.) replaced the outlawed Social Democratic Party, many joined it, and some of the socialist Finns of Port Arthur gave their majority block of shares in the Labour Temple, 314 Bay St., to the regional O.B.U. support group. (The socialist locals together with the temperance societies had built large halls in both cities - one at 314 Bay St. and the other at 211 Robertson St. in Fort William)

The following year, a split occurred among the Finns at the O.B.U. National Convention, being held at the Labour Temple. As a result, the socialist Finns were ousted - who then bought their own building, the adjacent Työkansa Press building.

The group, which remained at the Labour Temple, sought affiliation with the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) and realigned themselves with C.T.K.L. (Canadian Industrial Union Support Circle).

They were responsible for directing the Hoito Restaurant along Rochadale principles and for establishing a chain of People's Co-operative stores in Northwestern Ontario. In the 1930's and 1940's there were six stores in the chain.

The Finns at 316 Bay St. formed the Local #2 of the Finnish Organization of Canada (F.O.C.) and laid the foundation of today's Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union. They joined other ethnic groups in founding the International Co-operative Trading Company, which in 1939 had nine branch stores. They also housed the Vigour (Tarmo) Co-op Restaurant.

The Co-op Dairy was established in 1925 largely through the efforts of the Finns. The pasteurization laws had made it impossible for farmers to sell milk directly to the public.

By the mid-1930's the Depression had hit hard and some radical Finnish immigrants became quite disillusioned. Many left for Soviet Karelia and others volunteered for service in the Spanish Civil War. Their departure is said to have started the decline of activity in many Finnish communities of rural Thunder Bay.


Both Port Arthur and Fort William had their own Finnish business districts, the former on Bay St. and East Simpson St. in the latter. Bay St. still remains definitely Finnish in character, for the language is spoken in practically every establishment, Finnish imports are sold and Finnish style cuisine is offered.

The business world has been much enriched by the enterprise of the Finns. They have owned and operated hotels, stores, newspapers, restaurants, bakeries, boarding houses, taxis, sawmills, construction and timber companies and almost any business one can name. The professions have been well represented also.


The first Finnish Church was built in 1897 - the Lutheran church on Wilson St., Port Arthur, followed in 1902 by another Lutheran church in Fort William.

The Laestadians, who broke away from the Lutherans in 1899, had their own church in Fort William, but sold it in 1910 and built a new one in Port Arthur in 1913.

Both Lappe and Nolalu had a Lutheran congregation around the turn of the century, but their churches were build many years later - in the former, in 1922, and in the latter, in 1940.

Until 1947, one minister served Port Arthur, Fort William and the surrounding areas, including Lappe, Nolalu, Nipigon, Wolf Siding, Kaministiquia, Sunshine, Mokomon and West Pearson.

At least ten Churches, including Pentecostal and Free Church serve the Finnish people of the district today.


The first Finnish newspaper printed in Port Arthur was "Työkansa" (The Working Class). It started as a weekly in 1907, changed to daily in 1912, but went bankrupt in 1915.

"Canadan Uutiset" (Canadian News) published its first issue on November 11, 1915. It has always been a weekly and continues today from 218 Wilson St.

Other Finnish newspapers that were widely read in this district but which, were published elsewhere are:

"Vapaus" (Freedom) had its start in 1917, first appearing three times a week, but it has been published at times as a daily and also bi-weekly. Vapaus and the monthly literary publication "Liekki" (Flame) were joined in 1974 into one weekly paper called "Viikkosanomat" (Weekly News).

"Vapaa Sana" (Free Speech) was started in 1932 and still continues as a bi-weekly.

"Industrialisti" (The Industrial Worker) ceased operations in October 1975 after about 60 years as the Finnish language newspaper of the I.W.W.

"Toveritar" (The Women's Comrade) was a popular women's weekly.

"Nyrkki lehti" (Fist Press) was a handwritten illustrated newsletter, which was popular among small groups and organizations.

Extracted from a brochure entitled "The Finnish Experience", produced by the Thunder Bay Finnish Canadian Historical Society.

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