On Grieving the Finnish Labour Temple and the Promise of the Community Hall

Samira Saramo

The news crashed down on me like a tonne of red bricks: the Finnish Labour Temple had been sold. Since 1910, the Labour Temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario, has stood as the grandest symbol of Finnish immigrant presence in Canada. With its iconic cupola, it is also a beacon of Thunder Bay and the heart of the bustling Bay-Algoma neighbourhood. Now, removed from community ownership, the Labour Temple is slated to be turned into condos. As a historian of Finnish immigrant communities, and as someone whose life has featured the Labour Temple in many key moments, from our newborn’s naming ceremony to weddings to funerals and everything in between, the end of the Finnish Labour Temple as we know it has hit me hard. As I grieve this loss along with the community surrounding the “Finn Hall,” I would like to reflect on the history of the Finnish Labour Temple, particularly thinking on the legacy and promise of the community hall.

The Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay, an active community organization managing a popular restaurant and a unique event hall, had become burdened by significant financial difficulties. The Association’s debts were largely the result of completing the much-needed renovation of the building in 2010-2013, which was meant to serve the Labour Temple well into its next century. In May 2020, two months after COVID-19 had closed the Association’s Hoito Restaurant, the burden was finally too great and the organization was forced to dissolve and liquidate its assets. The September 25th announcement of the Finnish Labour Temple’s purchase by a real estate agent based in Barrie, Ontario, came as a blow to the Finlandia community.

The Finnish Labour Temple was born out of optimism and the belief that the world could be made more equitable for all by empowering workers, newcomers, women, and children. A cooperative project of the Finnish Workers’ League Imatra and Uusi Yritys (New Attempt) Temperance Society, construction began in 1908 and in 1910, the Finnish Labour Temple opened its doors at 314 Bay Street. For the first half of its existence, the Finnish Labour Temple was firmly tied to the revolutionary Left, yet it has never been a stranger to change.

Detail from Finnish Labour Temple inscription “Labor omnia vincit” (Work Conquers All). Photo by Luke Nicol, 2012.

As the socialist Finnish immigrant community searched for its place within the burgeoning landscape of revolutionary politics in Canada, the Finnish Labour Temple community moved through affiliations with the Socialist Party of Canada, the Social Democratic Party of Canada, and the One Big Union – all within the first decade. By 1919, tensions grew between direct-action syndicalists and those moving ideologically toward what would become the Communist Party of Canada. The syndicalists affiliating with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) gained control of the “Big Finn Hall,” while the Communists moved next door to 316 Bay Street to found the “Little Finn Hall.” The Finnish Labour Temple of the Wobbly Finns slowly transitioned into the Finlandia Club of Port Arthur in the 1960s, with a new wave of more conservative Finnish immigrants. The Club continued to evolve, becoming the Finlandia Association to usher in the renovation project. Though the Finnish Labour Temple has seen its share of heated differences in visions for the building and the membership right to its final days, commitment to building community has always been a core value.

Big Finn Hall on the right, Little Finn Hall on the left, 1920s. Archives & Digital Collections at Lakehead University Library.

Though the politics and membership of the Finnish Labour Temple community have changed with the years, the Hoito Restaurant had been a constant from 1918. Hoito (which means ‘care’ in Finnish) was founded with $5 loans from members, as a not-for-profit restaurant to provide hardy Finnish meals at low cost for workers. Much of the public discussion in the wake of the Finlandia Association’s dissolution has centered on the closure of the Hoito Restaurant. Its famous Finnish pancakes and fascinating history has made the restaurant a key symbol of Thunder Bay. The Hoito has offered an entry point to Finnish culture, food (karjalan piirakka, anyone?), and the Labour Temple for generations. Due to its undeniable significance for Finns and non-Finns alike, in Thunder Bay and beyond, it is unsurprising that the closure of the Hoito has generated a buzz.

What has surprised me, however, is that almost wholly absent from the outcry over the Association’s liquidation and now the sale of the Finnish Labour Temple is the loss of a beloved community hall. Generations of Thunder Bay area folks have memories of the bustle of the “haali.” In its first decades, the Big Finn Hall was an incomparable hub of cultural and political activities, including: political lectures, debates, and discussion groups, dances, theatre, orchestras, gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, children’s socialist Sunday schools, women’s sewing circles, English language lessons, an exceptionally well-stocked reading room, and always a warm cup of coffee. There, the community ate together, everyone able chipping in, children played and when the adult talk or dancing went late into the evening, the young ones were put to sleep on a bed of coats in the cloakroom. When the community fell on hard times, the Hall sheltered homeless striking workers.

Striking lumber workers outside of the Finnish Labour Temple, July 1935. Note the IWW flag on the balcony. Archives & Digital Collections at Lakehead University Library.

There is a strange magic to the Hall. Though the wood panelled walls and the removed third floor balcony remind us of moments in the Hall’s evolution, stepping into the space, I feel the emotive power of continuity. The sweet smell of 110 years of strong coffee and braided Finnish cardamom coffee bread (pulla) has steeped into the bones of the building. Standing in the Hall, it’s as if the ghosts of all that has been and the promise of all that can be swirl around you, inviting you to soak in the feelings of being in place. As a historian, a Finn, and a member of the Finnish Labour Temple community, there are few places that make me feel more at home than that “haali.”

In the past years, to note but very little of all I have experienced at the Hall, I have listened to political debates, enjoyed films and variety shows, and spent years of Saturday mornings rehearsing with the Finnish folk music Pelimmanni Orchestra. I have marched in with the St. Urho’s Day procession and have built a giant cardboard village with a gaggle of excited children. I have wept for community members passed away and I have celebrated the marriage of friends. I have listened to the community share their wishes and needs for the Hall and I have brought my research back there, to the community I serve. Once, I even stood before our friends and family and declared my commitment to raising my children in the revolutionary spirit of community and betterment.

A quiet moment in the Hall before an event in 2012. Photo by Luke Nicol.

I have lost nights of sleep worrying about the fate of the Hall since this past May (and truth be told for the past several years). Despite the dire situation, I somehow maintained optimism that this was yet another chapter of the Labour Temple’s renewal, and that one or another faction of the Finnish community would ultimately buy and maintain the Hall. A lump grew in my throat as I read the plans for the Finnish Labour Temple’s “development.” Thunder Bay media reported that the new owner wants to run a restaurant in the space of the Hoito, but the Hall will be converted into “high-end” condos. I can pinpoint my heartbreak to the words: “he doesn’t see a need or demand for that space.”

As a National Heritage Site, the exterior of the Finnish Labour Temple and its bold inscription of “Work Conquers All” will continue to command the attention of passersby. But to find its heart, the curious will no longer be able to soak up the feel of the Hall and find the treasures of its past hidden throughout. The grandness of the Finnish Labour Temple and its founding vision proved to be its undoing. It was too much for a small volunteer-run community organization to shoulder the financial, labour, and emotional costs.

The Finlandia Association had repeatedly been accused of not being viable as a business, but that framing is fundamentally flawed. The Finnish Labour Temple was never meant to be a successful business, because – in the thinking of its founders – profits in the (co-op) bank would have meant a failure to fully engage in the revolutionary work that serves its members. The non-profit landscape has changed since 1910, but there remains an inherent disconnect between the needs and forms of spaces where community thrives and those of capitalist business structure. Many community and historic ethnic organizations share in the loss of the Finnish community of Thunder Bay, as they, too, face an uphill battle of mounting costs. Governments have proven inept at filling the social service gaps left by the closure of community halls. Yet, now, perhaps more than ever, we need accessible, affordable community spaces that bring together people of multiple generations to envision and build a better future.

Through the sting of my grief for the Finnish Labour Temple Hall, I find solace in archives and historical research. The recipes for community are there in the records and voices of the past. With continued hope and mobilization, we can grow sustainable, anti-racist, and equitable community spaces for the future.

Dr. Samira Saramo, Senior Researcher at the Migration Institute of Finland, is a transdisciplinary historian of migration, place-making, and the everyday, whose work centers on Finnish immigrant communities. Samira’s new Kone Foundation-funded project aims to situate Finnish migration in the context of Canadian settler colonialism by creating multisensory digital maps that explore the ways Finns have drawn on place, landscape, and emotion to claim belonging in Ontario.

Further reading

Thunder Bay’s Finnish Archives at Lakehead University

The Lakehead Finns

Thunder Bay Finnish Canadian Historical Society

Michel Beaulieu, Ronald Harpelle, and David Ratz, editors. Hard Work Conquers All: Finnish Canadian Experiences. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2018.

Marc Metsaranta, editor.  Project Bay Street: Activities of Finnish-Canadians in Thunder Bay before 1915. Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Finnish-Canadian Historical Society, 1989.

Samira Saramo. “‘A socialist movement which does not attract women cannot live’: The strength of Finnish Socialist Women in Port Arthur, 1903–1933.” In Labouring Finns: Transnational Politics in Finland, Canada, and the United States, eds. M. Beaulieu, R. Harpelle, and J. Penney, 145–166.  Turku:  Migration Institute of Finland, 2011.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

4 thoughts on “On Grieving the Finnish Labour Temple and the Promise of the Community Hall

  1. Stacey Zembrzycki

    Thank you for this wonderful piece and the care you take when speaking about your beloved community. I too am upset by this development and the utter lack of historical preservation occurring in Northern Ontario in general, which isn’t new but continues to anger and sadden me.

  2. Mary Jeanne Roy

    Thank you for doing this article. As the daughter of a Finn who first located to “Port Arthur/Thunder Bay”, I heard many stories about Hoito’s and the Finnish Labour Temple, and always hoped to set eyes on it one day. I share your sadness of it’s demise but look forward to exploring more into the history of the Finnish settlement there. Thank you again. Mary (Rantala) Roy.

  3. Catherine

    Thank you for the interesting, well-written article. As a Finnish-American who values her heritage, I have enjoyed visiting (and eating) at the hall. I am sorry that it will be changing. Kiitos!

  4. Ahti Tolvanen


    The announcement of the opening of condo sales just in time for Canada Day also signified the end of a long history for Thunder Bay’s historic Finnish Labour Temple as a community cultural meeting place.

    The members of the owner organization, The Finlandia Association, held a net meeting in May 2020, just months after covid restrictions had forced it’s mainstay, the Hoito Restaurant to close.

    To save the historic community venue opened in 1910, Minister Patty Hajdu announced a Federal covid emergency loan guarantee at the last minute. It was all window dressing. After a missed 2000 CAD payment the bank demanded liquidation and refused to readjust the loan, guarantees or not.

    Unlike the case with the government’s Trans-Mountain Pipeline, one obstacle was all the excuse it needed to back out.

    RBC had just announced a program to help clients who had run into dire straits due to the epidemic. Obviously the Finlandia Association was not one of those deserving clients. The bank probably had its reasons.

    The Finnish owners of the Labour Temple were already in more than financial trouble, at least since 2016. That’s when the Labour Temple fell out with its “friends” who had organized themselves into Friends of the Thunder Bay Finnish Labour Temple.

    That year the Temple was the scene of a Finnish Canadian Grand Festival. The organisers were the Finlandia Association and the national Finnish Canadian Cultural Federation but “Friends” founders Kelly Saxberg and Ron Harpelle headed up the festival organizing team.

    The program included many films produced by Saxberg and fimmakers she had brought in for past Bay Street Film Festivals as well as Harpelle’s academic acquaintances as lecturers.

    When it was over the Association board’s incoming chair, Cindy Salo, was saying Saxberg and Harpelle had played too fast and loose with the festival budget. Saxberg failed to get re-elected to the board at the Finlandia fall meeting and Harpelle and other Friends walked out in protest.

    In 2019 the Finnish Festival came again to Thunder Bay. Neither the “Friends” nor Finnish Ambassador Ericsson, who delivered the opening remarks, included events at the historic Temple in their programs.

    In an incredible gesture of cultural co-option Harpelle even changed his name to “Ronnie Harpelainen” for the local media.

    Despite the falling out the Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple continued to raise funds, ostensibly for the benefit of its namesake. They ignored the Finlandia’s cease and desist letters. The Finlandia began to post public warnings that it had nothing to do with the “Friends” including on the door of the Temple and that it was not receiving donations from the Friends.

    At the same time the Finlandia Association was desperately trying to raise funds from the general public to head off financial disaster. The competitive campaigning and other confusions about the relationship with the Friends created considerable uncertainty among community members who might have donated to help the doors of the Labour Temple stay open.

    Matters were not improved by the fact that Harpelle and Saxberg decided to sue the entire board of the Finlandia Association individually and collectively for tens of thousands of dollars in damages for “libelous statements” about the pair’s financial inproprieties. They even went on to sue the Finnish language weekly, Canadan Sanomat for reporting all this. A main grievance was that such statements were harmful to Saxberg’s and Harpelle’s filmmaking business.

    Board member Erik Riekko was the first to meet Saxberg and Harpelle in court where the charges were thrown out by the judge as completely unfounded. The Finlandia board was pressed for time and money and negotiated a settlement. The collapse of their case in court made the plaintiff’s ready to settle for a few hundred rather than the tens of thousand they had sought.

    Paying to settle was probably the Finlandia board’s biggest mistake. Whoever pays to settle usually comes out looking guilty. Particularly in the eyes of cautious donors and lenders like banks.

    In March 2020 the Hoito restaurant in the basement of the Labour Temple was forced to close because of epidemic restrictions. The Hoito was the financial mainstay of the already indebted Finlandia Association. So far the restaurant business had allowed the Association to make debt payments. But soon it was in deep trouble. When they missed the next payment, the bank, already worried over troubles its client seemed to be having, seized the chance to get out and insisted on liquidation.

    The Finnish Labour Temple went on the market and was picked up by developer Brad McKinnon for just enough to pay off RBC. The main debt, tax arrears to the public purse, was written off.

    The Labour Temple was closed for another Canada Day this year. Although covid restrictions were being lifted the workmen were still busy at the closed-off worksite doing finishing work so the new owners of the up-scale condos inside could move in by year’s end.

    Their coming fall film activities were promoted prominently in the “Friends” Midsummer Finnish cultural revue produced and shown by Harpelle and Saxberg on the net over the holidays. It seems they had succeeded in selling the video product to the Canadian Finnish Cultural Federation.

    No mention was made of plans for the hundreds of elderly Finns for whom the hall had been a center of their community life.

    The “Friends” of the Finnish Labour Temple had survived the long months of the epidemic while their namesake had met with disaster.

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.