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REVIEW: Canadian Materials

This book is a history of the Finnish community of Sointula on Malcolm Island, which is situated in Queen Charlotte Strait between the mainland of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Matti Kurikka, a Finnish Socialist and charismatic leader was appointed president of the Kalevan Kansa Colonisation Company Limited. Authorities in British Columbia, on behalf of the Crown, granted land on Malcolm Island to the Finnish company in November 1901.

Shortly before this, the group of Finns who had brought Kurikka to British Columbia had arranged for the establishment of a newspaper, the Aika (Time), which Kurikka operated. Through the paper, and in lecture tours, Kurikka spread the word to his readers of the plan for a commune on Malcolm Island. In spite of difficulties arranging for paid employment for prospective settlers, the colony eventually started. What follows is an intriguing story - the initial enthusiasm of the settlers, the difficulties that they encountered, Kurikka's visionary schemes, and the accumulation of overwhelming debt. Kurikka solicited help from a friend in Finland, Austin Makela, a Marxist. He joined the Kalevan Kansa company, and later took over as President when Kurikka resigned after the colonists became disenchanted with him.

Sointula residents joined the Socialist Party of Canada in 1907, but split with the British leaders in 1911 because of differing aims. In 1912 the Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada (FSOC) formed. During the First World War, "Socialist" was dropped from the name because of governmental pressure, with the new name shortened to Finnish Organization of Canada. This, in turn allied with the Worker's Party of Canada, which was also renamed to form the Communist Party of Canada.

A large hall, the Finnish Organization Hall, served the community for political meetings, debates, and concerts. In spite of a fire in which eleven members of the community died, and constantly difficult finances, Sointula was a happy place by 1937. Its people were like one large family; no doors were ever locked, and recreational activities had been organized - a band, drill teams for both women and men, a library, and dances every Saturday night. A Co-op store was also a social centre, a gathering place to exchange daily news.

Life on the island changed dramatically after World War II. Cars, radios, telephones, and alcohol brought the outside world to Sointula. Finnish was no longer the only language, though it was not until one teacher banned the use of Finnish inside the school that children learned English formally, according to government regulations.

The next change came when young Americans, draft dodgers from the Vietnam War, arrived on Malcolm Island. Their desire to "get back to the land" caused an upheaval in the lives of the Sointulans. It took adjustment on both sides for a new pattern of living to evolve, but today both the original Finns and newcomers respect each other. Although life will never be the same in Sointula, its residents still considered it a delightful home.

The author, Paula Wild, has done an excellent job of collecting material from many sources to write this history. It is generously illustrated with photos, has three appendices, a good bibliography of sources, and a comprehensive index.

Sointula will be especially useful in British Columbia libraries, but will interest anyone who is fascinated by utopian ideals, Canadian politics, Finnish immigration, or biographies of unusual leaders. This last category is well illustrated by Matti Kurikka and his Finnish contemporary Austin Makela.


-Joan Payzant is a retired teacher/librarian living in Dartmouth, N.S.