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REVIEW: Finnish Literature Forum


Attempted utopias have a seductive fascination for even the most cynical nihilist. The kind of belief which drives individuals to attempt to attain political, economic or spiritual perfection seems increasingly alien in an age of moral relativism in which uncertainties and contradictions are accepted, even celebrated, yet this kind of distance seems only to heighten the sense of mystique surrounding these usually marginalised social experiments. Sointula, the utopian community founded on a remote island in western Canada by a seemingly disparate band of Finnish expatriates, was born in a time when this trinity of perfection seemed attainable. A group of Finnish miners, many of whom were employed to push carts of ore for $3 a day, had become attracted to socialism in the 1890s when, early in 1900, they learned of Matti Kurikka. Kurikka was a fellow Finn, effectively exiled from his homeland by the Russians, who had attempted to set up a utopian commune in Australia.

The Canadian Finns had been discussing ways to improve their lot and had considered the possibility of founding their own community, so they wrote to Kurikka asking him to come to Canada and lead them in their endeavours. Kurikka accepted and the enterprise was soon joined by Austin Mäkelä, a committed Marxist and founder of the Finnish Labour Party. Together the two worked with the Canadian Finns to found the new community on Malcom Island in Vancouver Bay. The name of the community, Kalevan Kansa ('The people of Kaleva') belies the mystical nationalism which Kurika peddled. Basing his charismatic rhetoric around the continuation of the mythology of the Kaleva, the land of heroes, his utopianism shared little of the apparent universalism of Mäkelä’s Marxism. The isolationist reality of the community, as it was painstakingly established by the original pioneers, reflected the insular nationalism of the founder’s vision, but it is little surprise that Mäkelä’s relative pragmatism gradually rep laced Kurikka’s idiosyncratic and often impractical leadership. The growing differences between the two not only led to Kurikka’s eventual departure, but also to the gradual broadening of the community to embrace non-Finns as well as the inevitable compromise on the ideal of self-sufficiency.

Paula Wild tells this story of idealism, personal and ideological conflict and the evolution of an isolated community in great detail. A wealth of documentary material, oral evidence and fascinating photographs are pieced together to give a definitive historical account of the development of a community. The result is an invaluable history of a place and its people, but one which, perhaps deliberately, avoids an intellectual analysis of what was really going on and how it related, and indeed relates, to wider debates and events. Were the initial pioneers fleeing modernity, as the location of Sointula suggests, or were they hoping to contribute to a changing world as the rhetoric of their newspaper, Aika (‘Time’), proclaimed? Do we read isolationism as defeat or empowerment, or both? The tensions are clearly there in the narrative but aside from a brief flirtation with Thomas More in the opening chapter, there is a limited attempt at contextualisation. Did the Finns share more with Ebenezer Howard a nd the English Garden City Movement or the famed Amish rejection of the outside world? Moreover, the seemingly unproblematic acceptance by the Finns of becoming subjects of the King of England, given their attitude to the Russian Empire, and their apparently ambiguous relationship with the USSR in the 1930s are not given the depth of attention they deserve.

The book is at its strongest when it surveys post-war developments in Sointula. The anglicisation of names, the arrival of electricity, television, liquor and the police, the decline of the community spirit perceived by the older generations, together with the arrival of draft dodgers and hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, are are brought to life through interviews and photographs. Sointula has not escaped the dynamics of modernity, regardless of the desires of its original inhabitants, yet the new cosy isol ation which has emerged has produced a new utopia. Families such as the Greisreiters who came to Sointula from urban America in 1970, 'longing to return to the basic values of an earlier time' could do so safe in the knowledge that, 'every couple of months Dick would go to Vancouver and fill the back of the truck with a couple of hundred pounds of flour, sugar and other staples.'
And now there are the tourists, but I suppose that’s another story.

-Stephen Escritt, Books from Finland 3/1996