Between 1870 and 1930 approximately 400,000 Finns emigrated from Finland to North America. Almost 80,000 Finns settled in Canada. The majority of Finnish immigrants came from the region of Ostrobothnia in Western Finland.
The first big wave of emigration, between 1899 and 1913, marked the height of “America Fever” when over 200,000 Finns crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The Second Wave of immigrants arrived in North America after the Finnish Civil War of 1918 when the socialist government was overthrown. Within a decade after the Finnish Civil War, another 200,000 Finns left their homeland for North America. The third significant wave of Finnish immigration occurred after the Second World War when 15,000 Finns entered Canada.
Many Finnish immigrants brought their religious devotion to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, the state church. Among the earliest Lutheran churches in Thunder Bay were the Apostolic Lutheran Church, the Port Arthur Finnish Lutheran Church, and the Fort William Finnish Lutheran Church. These were established at the end of the 19th century and were followed in the early 20th century by other churches like the Evangelical Zion Lutheran Church, the Immanuel Lutheran Church and many others in the surrounding area. Churches were a central feature in the lives of early settlers because they not only provided worship services and religious activities, they offered a primary social outlet for Finns where language and culture could be shared.
The Finnish Temperance Movement walked hand in hand with the local churches and in 1902 a Temperance Society named “Uusi Yritys” or “New Attempt,” was established in Port Arthur. The objective of the Society was to steer people away from alcohol, conduct cultural activities and work towards social reform to make life in Canada more conducive to temperate living. The Society established a youth group, a Speakers’ Club, committees to help enforce liquor laws among Finns, an athletics club and a variety of cultural activities like, family-oriented theatre, dances and musical performances.
In 1908 the New Attempt Temperance Society teamed up with the Workingmen’s Association Imatra #9, a labour organization to which many members of the Society belonged. Both groups found common cause in supporting efforts to preserve Finnish identity and solidarity through outreach activities. Imatra was a socialist organization and became affiliated with the Socialist Party of Canada, and this caused concern among some in the Society, but this did not prevent both groups from coming together to form the Finnish Building Company which built the Finnish Labour Temple in 1910.
Imatra was only one of a series of left-wing political organizations to find a home in the Lakehead. Some were created as local organizations that focused on regional issues or groups like lumber workers. But others, like the Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada, the Social Democratic Party of Canada, and later the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party of Canada, were national and international in scope but extremely vibrant at the Lakehead.
An important aspect of the early Finnish organizations was their support for an inclusion of women in their activities. In Finland, women obtained the vote in 1906 and it is not surprising that Finnish women in Canada were at the forefront of the local movement to give women the vote in Canada. Women formed committees within organizations like the Temperance Society and Imatra and led events and activities to support and educate women and girls.
One of the primary outlets for public outreach was through the publication of books and local Finnish language newspapers. A number of Finnish presses were established in North America where books by North American Finns were published. In Port Arthur, the Työkansa (The Working People) newspaper was established by Imatra. Työkansa was only one of many Finnish language newspapers published in Canada since the beginning of the 20th century. With the Finns high level of literacy and appreciate of the written word, one of the features of the Finnish Labour Temple was its Reading Room where community members could read the news and share opinions.
The lives of many of the Finns was influenced by the political and social culture in the Lakehead, however, it was there distinctive sisu that enabled them to flourish in Canada and preserve their strong cultural identity.