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The Finnish Labour Temple

The Finnish Labour Temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario has a long history as the epicentre for the Finnish community. The building, at 314 Bay Street in the former city of Port Arthur, has a story that is inseparable from the activities of early Finnish working class immigrants and their desire to strengthen community and advocate for social changes that would benefit all Canadians.

The “Big Finn Hall”, as it was later known, was completed in 1910 through the combined efforts of the Finnish-American Workers’ League Imatra #9 and the Finnish New Attempt Temperance Society. The building was intended to replace the Temperance Society’s hall at 217 Wilson Street and the Torppa, Imatra #9’s hall at 309 Dufferin Street. The two organizations formed the Finnish Building Company and, through a contest, named the new building the Finnish Labour Temple.

Designed to serve the needs of the Finnish community, the Finnish Labour Temple featured offices, a library, reading room and an auditorium for meetings, dances, theatrical productions and sporting events. The grand opening, a three-day long event, was held in March 1910.

Beginning in 1910, 314 Bay Street was often referred to as the “Port Arthur Finnish Socialist’s Local Temple” because of its connection to the Port Arthur Branch of the Socialist Party of Canada, and later to the Social Democratic Party of Canada. From 1910 – 1912, the Finnish Publishing Company, publishers of the Finnish language newspaper Työkansa rented the downstairs of the building.

Following the First World War, the Canadian government outlawed the Social Democratic Party. Many Finnish workers joined the newly formed One Big Union and gave their Finnish Building Company shares to the regional support circle.

At the One Big Union National Convention in October 1920 at the Finnish Labour Temple, ethnic tensions and differences within the Lumber Workers Industrial Union led the Finnish workers to leave the organization en mass. Those that remained in the One Big Union eventually joined the Communist Party of Canada. They bought the adjacent building at 316 Bay Street in 1923 and the “Little Finn Hall” was born. They formed Local #2 of the Finnish Organization of Canada (Canadan Suomalainen Järjestö) and laid the foundation of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union.

Responding to the growing needs of bush workers for inexpensive food, the Finns from the Little Finn Hall led the organization of the International Co-operative Trading Company in Northwestern Ontario. At one time there was a location on Bay Street. The Little Finn Hall also housed the co-op restaurant, Vigour (Tarmo).

The Finnish workers who remained at the Finnish Labour Temple realigned with the Industrial Workers of the World as the Canadian Industrial Support Circle (Canadan Teollisuusunionistinen Kannatusliitto), not, as it is often mistaken, to the Communist Party of Canada. They were responsible for the continued operation of the Hoito Restaurant and for establishing People’s Co-operative stores in Port Arthur, Fort William, Westfort, Lappe, Intola, Kaministiqua, Schreiber, and Kivikoski in the 1930s and 1940s.

Throughout most of the 20th century, both of the halls on Bay Street were the cultural centres of the Finnish community. They were home to a diverse number of Finnish newspapers, theatrical productions, concerts, motion pictures, sporting events, festivals and community meetings. Established in 1962, the Finlandia Club of Port Arthur (now the Finlandia Club of Thunder Bay) continues to oversee the operation of the building.

Today, while preserving much of its early cultural and historical identity, the Finnish Labour Temple is a vibrant part of a wider community. The basement of 314 Bay Street is still home to the internationally renowned Hoito Restaurant, the oldest co-operatively owned and operated restaurant in Canada famous for serving traditional Finnish foods as well as Canadian fare.