Historians have long argued that during the first 35 years of the 20th century socialism in Canada 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.
Upon their arrival to Canada, most Finnish workers did not share common cause with the existing Anglo-dominated trade unions who were 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. This “hall socialism” remained a powerful force among Finns.
One of the most visible characteristics of Finnish involvement in politics during the first two waves was the role of women such as Sanna Kannasto as regional and national advocates on the issue of suffrage (the right to vote). Having achieved suffrage in Finland in 1906, many women were astounded to discover that they lost what was considered a basic right when they arrived in Canada. Through lecturing in halls to sewing circles these women discussed and debated a host of issues ranging from contraception, maternal health, the nature of marriage and abortion to the writings of Karl Kautsky and Vladimir Lenin. Their progressiveness and willingness to counter the dogma of the Canadian state resulted in them being branded as troublemakers, unfit parents and prostitutes. Their most vocal opponents were the wives of the Anglo-elite who would themselves later champion the right to vote movement.
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, 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 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 and, particularly after the onset of the First World War, workers, who had stood shoulder to shoulder in strikes before the war, were divided further between those labelled “enemy aliens” and those who were not.
In response, Finns and other non-Anglo workers began to look for alternatives. They found it, for a short time, in the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). Upset with the activities of the local American Federation of Labor unions and the general apathy expressed towards both immigrant workers and, specifically, lumber workers by both the Trades and Labour Congress and local labour councils, Finns led the charge to establish an Industrial Workers of the World presence sometime in 1916. The Industrial Workers of the World carried out its activities through Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union support circles located in largely Finnish lumber camps. Although the Industrial Workers of the World did appeal to many English-speaking workers, the backbone of the Industrial Workers of the World during this period became the Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada. The previous Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada branches found in those communities dependent upon the lumber industry began to favour the Industrial Workers of the World. The change had a lot to do with the conversion of leading organizers to the Wobbly cause. It was also the Industrial Workers of the World and the Finns that took the lead in Northwestern Ontario in supporting the Russian Revolution as it had profoundly influenced political developments in Finland.
However, the War Measures Act and Section 98 of the Criminal Code enacted in 1918 virtually stopped all-socialist activities in Canada. The organizations of Finns and other ethnic groups were particularly targeted due to their “socialist” tendencies imported from their homeland. The Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada ceased to operate and the Industrial Workers of the World was forced to go underground. Most Finnish workers in the region began to support the formation of the One Big Union in the month before the Winnipeg General Strike in spring 1919. All Finnish Industrial Workers of the World auxiliaries that had existed before the war joined en masse to these new organizations, and the One Big Union took control of the Finnish Labour Temple.
This situation was short-lived. Difference over how the organizations should be structured – based on geography or industry (which the Finns supported) – led to fissures in the One Big Union and, in 1922, many left. The majority in the region went back to the Industrial Workers of the World, which once again gained control of the Labour Temple, while others, whose numbers were bolstered by an influx of new immigrants from Finland who had fought for the Reds in the Finnish Civil War, eventually joined the Community Party of Canada which had established a foothold in the region by 1923 through the activities of Finns such as former Wobbly A.T. Hill, had been had been swayed to the communist banner due to the events of 1917 and 1918. Nationally, by 1925, Finns made up approximately 60%, or 2,620 of 4,000, of the party’s membership and operated largely through the Finnish Organization of Canada. They established their own hall at 316 Bay Street and, between 1923 and 1935, the two organizations fought for the allegiance of Finnish workers. Royal Canadian Mounted Police reports at the time reveal that that the Finns in Fort William and Port Arthur alone were believed to represent over 15% of all Bolshevik agitation in Canada during this time.
After flirting with revolutionary and direct action from 1914 to 1935, they turned, at least at the Lakehead, back to the social democracy that had driven them from their homes, as many threw their lot in with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the new “voice” of the left after the Second World War. Subsequent migration of Finns in the late 1950s and 1960s further led to involvement in established political parties and, by 1962, control of the Finnish Labour Temple for the first time in almost 30 years did not rest with a socialist organization.