Finnish-Canadians

The Young Finnish Women Pioneers of Montreal

Finnish maids in Quebec ca 1930

The earliest waves of Finnish immigrants to Montreal consisted overwhelmingly of young Finnish women. Unlike in other areas of Canada, where Finnish immigrants engaged in forestry or other labour, in Montreal the gender balance was definitely female! These determined and resourceful young Finns often worked as domestic help in the ‘grandes maisons”, or the large and rich homes of the Montreal wealthy. They were the primary movers behind starting the congregation, and the initial financial offerings they raised came from their own, often meagre, earnings. Through the years, unlike in many other churches, women and men together have always been on church council, and active in the direction of the congregation, its music and its social life. Newly arrived maids on the steps of the Finnish Immigrant Home in Montreal ca 1929 Victor Kangas Collection

It’s not surprising that so many of the Suomi activities planned for fall 2017 in Montreal – a Finnish bus trip to the Eastern Townships on Oct 14, the sold-out Suomi 100 Ball in December – are likewise spearheaded by women. The historical video can be watched here: https://vimeo.com/235420822

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The Promised (Fin)land

2013-08-20 20.43.25

I really LOVE Montreal, one of “my” Finns will say. It’s a great city. It’s so exciting. But….But then the Finn will get a dreamy look on their face: “But you know, I’m only here temporarily. It’s a two-year contract. And then our plan is to move back to Helsinki.”

Montreal, nice as it is, is just the waiting station. For many, the land of their dreams is, was, and always will be, Finland. We’ll talk about Mount Royal and how nice it is in the spring to look out over the city. We’ll chat about going out for a sugaring-off and maple syrup, or skating on Beaver Lake, and we’ll all agree that there’s nothing like the taste of tire-sur-neige when there’s still snow on the ground and sap flowing in the trees. We’ll talk about going to La Banquise for poutine and the night life on St-Denis and the jazz and the great music and the outdoor terrasses for a cappuccino or a café au lait.

And that’s where I, for my part, would stop, maybe. But sooner or later, something, maybe talking about the Laurentians, will set the others on to Finland. Oh, the forests, they’ll say. You don’t have to go far out of Helsinki you know. The birches. I miss the birches. And then their conversation will be all about the saunas, and swimming in the deep dark lakes, and picking lingonberries and the quiet of the northland woods. And they’ll get this smile and this far-away look on their faces: You can be SO happy there, so easily! Even just dreaming about going back is what gets us through.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, writes John the Elder, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Life, frankly, looks a lot more like traffic jams on Atwater street than either the idealized Finland of some folks I know, or the heavenly Jerusalem. But you and I CAN find glimpses of how things should be, even here, even on Monkland Avenue or Sherbrooke Street or Victoria avenue St-Lambert, in how we treat each other and the world around us, around the table, with all of our faults and warts and misgivings and hesitant happinesses.

Then, and then truly, we will experience that voice Revelation describes, speaking to us from the throne. The voice we cannot always hear, but the one we know is calling, and more than calling, promising. Telling each one of us. Behold, I make all things new even you.

 

The Accidental Ambassador

poster at Wiljami theatre Rovaniemi      movie is starting

Even though the Suomi Conference of Canada sent me to Finland to experience Finnish culture, I’m realizing now that I’m here, that I’m representing Canadian Finns to the homeland. Which is ironic. Who needs an ambassador who can’t even speak the language?

But the pleasure – and the privilege – is that I’m meeting relatives of Finns in Canada, who come to see my documentaries just because I’m a living connection to their family. “We are cousins to Heiki and drove 100 km to see you,” says one man, in carefully-practiced English. I hope that he will get something from the (not-Finnish-language) films. There are Finns who spent a winter, or two years, or a few weeks, in Vancouver or Toronto, who have come because I represent that land they left behind. Or Finns who might be coming to Canada for a term or a job, because they want a sense of the place.

First there are local singers who perform. Then my documentaries. After seeing the movie, the people shake their heads: “it’s not easy being an emigrant,” they say, “being caught between here and there.” Then, through translation, some of them talk about being caught between Helsinki and Lapland, or about their grown children traveling to the United States or to South America – and how they’re afraid that they will meet someone and settle down there, away from parents and home. A few in the audience know someone in the film. One woman cries, quietly.

When they hear that the Suomi choir in the film is coming back to Finland, I hear murmurs: “they’re coming here to the north I hope!” I answer “We’d love to!”, even though I then have to add that I know nothing about the choir’s schedule and have zero power to change it.

Then, the lights lift, and people move to their coats and after a few more “kiitos’s” they are gone. I collect my things. Sari – who has been such a wonderful host throughout – will drop me back to my apartment. She knows I haven’t eaten since breakfast. “Are you hungry?” she asks. I still haven’t figured out the eating patterns here, which seem to include lots of food in the late evening after sauna, and sausages outside following every snow activity. But neither of those is the situation today. I think perhaps this will be the occasion for more Lappish cuisine. “Sure,” I answer. “Great,” she says, leading the way out the door: “I was thinking Chinese”.

singers at presentation