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Organizations & Parties

Historians have long argued that socialism in Canada during the first 35 years of the 20th century owed much to the presence and enthusiastic support of Finnish immigrants. This is remarkable considering Finns only made up a minority of the Canadian labour force. Many of these workers had already been radicalized before emigrating to Canada due to the changing nature of politics in Finland following rampant industrialization and the Russian Tsars program of Russification. Many sought political refuge in the burgeoning Canadian socialist organizations.

Finnish immigrants injected new ideas into existing Canadian socialist organizations that had previously been based on policies derived from British and American trade unionist and labour politics. At the Lakehead, Finns played a crucial role in the development of the early history of the left.

Most Finnish workers upon their arrival to Canada didn’t have common cause with the existing Anglo-dominated trade unions organized under the American Federation of Labor and later the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada. In fact, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada advertised itself in the Lakehead as the only organization in the region capable of protecting workers from “cheap, foreign-born labour”.

As a result, Finns formed their own workers associations, based on the same principles that had guided the Finnish cooperative movement in the late 19th century. The Port Arthur Finnish Workingmen’s Association, Imatra #9, formed in 1903, was one such organization. Its membership drew heavily from the Finns dissatisfied with the social and political discussions in the local churches and temperance associations. The expressed goal of the Amerikan Suomalainen Työväenliito Imatra was the dissemination of socialism by taking an active role in cultural, educational and political activities. Activities centred around the Finnish labour halls or temples. A fixture of Finnish-Canadian socialism that, no matter what the state of play among rival parties and groups on the left, this “hall socialism” remained a powerful force.

Dissatisfied with the lack of political action undertaken by the parent organization, Finnish socialists associated with the Imatra #9 in Port Arthur and Fort William actively pushed the lmatra #9 League to play a greater role in politics and unions where Finnish populations existed. Long blocked from political involvement and frustrated by the English orientation of trade unions, local Finnish workers established a branch of the Socialist Party of Canada in Port Arthur in 1906. The Socialist Party of Canada provided a natural home for those Finnish-Canadian socialists who had left the Imatra #9 League looking to take a more active political role within Canada.

By 1910 internal divisions had taken a toll on the Socialist Party of Canada. Differences in political ideas and ethnic tensions resulted in the Finns, led by those in Port Arthur and Fort William, to leave the Socialist Party of Canada. Desiring to provide socialists with a new national alternative, the former Port Arthur Finnish Socialist Party of Canada local called for a dominion convention to unite the various dissatisfied factions. Representatives met at the Lakehead on December 30 and 31,1911 to formally discuss unity.

The nature of the location was symbolic. With its foot firmly in both the Eastern and Western Canadian socialist movements and one of the bastions of Finnish-Canadian socialist strength, the Lakehead was seen as a bridge for what many in attendance hoped was the beginning of a pan-national party. The goals of the newly formed Social Democratic Party of Canada were to educate workers “to consciousness of their class position in society, their economic servitude to the owners of capital, and to organize them into a political party to seize the reins of government and transform all capitalist property into the collective property of the working class”.

To ensure a level of independence and to avoid the problems that had led to the Socialist Party of Canada’s implosion, Finnish members, following a plan first suggested by Port Arthur Finns in September 1911, also decided to form a separate, but affiliated ethnically and culturally based organization, headquartered in Toronto. By October, the Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada had been formed with 19 locals affiliated to the Social Democratic Party of Canada and a combined membership of 1,205. By 1914, this number had increased to 3,000 members in over 64 local throughout the country.

The First World War years were not good for socialists in Canada. Increasingly, government agencies targeted them for their anti-war messages. The Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada in those regions with a Finnish population became one of the most vocal in the protest of deplorable working and living conditions facing the working class. Finnish workers soon found themselves the objects of suspicion.