Finnish dancer Maria Nurmela had often heard about the town of Sointula, on B.C.’s Malcolm Island, where Finnish miners fleeing horrific working conditions in nearby Nanaimo settled and attempted to build an idyllic, socialist community at the turn of the last century.
Ms. Nurmela was in Jerusalem, performing and judging a choreography competition, when she met Mary Louise Albert of the BC Movement Arts Society at a restaurant.
“When I told her I’m Finnish, she was like: ‘Oh my God, oh my God – I’m from Sointula!’ ” Ms. Nurmela recalled. “And then we started to talk.”
Last month, she and dance partner Ville Oinonen performed a contemporary duet, The Days, at Sointula’s Finnish Organization Hall as part of the Nordic Bridges cultural exchange, which is based out of Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre and includes performance dates in nearby ‘Namgis First Nation, Port McNeill and Vancouver. The event is co-funded by organizations in six countries within the Article Circle, including Canada and Finland.
(More Nordic Bridges events will be held throughout the year in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.)
Sointula is tiny – fewer than 600 residents – and somewhat remote, accessible only by ferry or air. But in recent years it has been enjoying an academic and cultural revival in Finland.
“We all know Sointula because of its heritage. Its fame of having been the utopian community in the beginning of the 20th century in Canada,” Ms. Nurmela said. What’s “less known that it still exists.”
The seaside town was part of a wave of Finnish attempts to create utopian colonies around the world. In 1901, charismatic utopian socialist Matti Kurikka, fresh off a failed colonization attempt in Australia, led a group of miners off Vancouver Island to Malcolm Island, where they attempted to establish a colony and carve out a living. The utopian ideal is reflected in the town’s name: Sointula roughly translates to “place of harmony.”
But it was not. A series of questionable business decisions, community tensions and a devastating fire rocked the town in its early days. Faced with failure, Kurikka left with about half the community five years later.
For most Finns, the story ends there. But the remaining settlers persevered and rebuilt the community around fishing, logging and boat building.
The socialist and communal ideas Mr. Kurikka brought to Sointula are still here. Residents are more likely to start a co-op than a solo business initiative, and many prominent organizations on Malcolm Island are led by volunteers. The Sointula Co-op store is the oldest in the province and serves as an important meeting place. When the pandemic hit, residents relied on sisu, the Finnish concept of perseverance to get them through the lockdown, as they always do during hard times.
Vern Aro is a Sointula resident who can trace his roots back to one of the founding families. He makes his living from the sea, just as four generations of his family have – as fishermen and boatbuilders. Mr. Aro estimates there are about a hundred people in town like him – descendants of the original Finnish settlers. Finnish immigration practically stopped in the 1960s, and now most residents are big-city retirees, remote workers and aging draft dodgers who came to Sointula from the U.S. in the 1970s, he said.
Cultural exchanges, such as the dance Ms. Nurmela and Mr. Oinonen are bringing to town, largely stopped in the 1980s. But now they are back.
Interest in Sointula was revived largely by the efforts of Mika Kaartinen, who made headlines in 2013 in both Canada and Finland when he brought a 25-member theatre troupe from Finland to play at Sointula and helped organize a well-attended conference focusing on the community’s utopian past.
Mr. Kaartinen has since become Sointula’s unofficial ambassador in Finland. He came back in 2017, accompanied by a throng of Finnish journalists, a rock band and a delegation of Silicon Valley Finns.
“We’ve had an avalanche of tourists after that,” Mr. Aro said. “It’s boosted the local economy. No question about that.”
With all the renewed interest, researchers from Canada, Finland and the U.S. have flocked to Sointula to study everything from linguistic drifts to sauna culture. Just this month, a group of Finnish researchers published a new book on Kurikka.
Sointula’s museum has taken advantage of pandemic lockdowns to do an inventory. Over the course of six months, they found original maps of the cemetery, the records of a long-forgotten farmers’ institute and books written in the early 1900s about birth control and women’s rights. (Kurikka was a champion of the women’s movement in Finland.)
As such, the remote island community has parlayed its Finnish roots into economic development, transitioning from a resource-based economy into a more tourism-oriented one. There’s a now a summer population in Sointula, attracted to the island’s natural beauty and slow-paced life.
Mr. Kaartinen is hoping to feature the island in a film about Kurikka, something he has promised Kurikka’s great-granddaughter, who lives in Finland. Money for the project has been hard to come by, but he has hope.
“If I keep talking about it, it might happen,” Mr. Kaartinen said.
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