Sointula: Built on a Utopian dream
Special to the Mirror
The wild west coast of British Columbia has offered abundant opportunities for settlers to establish an independent lifestyle.
One of the most interesting stories of the search for freedom on the coast is the story of Sointula, a Finnish settlement on Malcolm Island. Sointula means ‘place of harmony’ and the Finns who settled there in the early1900s were hoping to establish a Utopia – an ideal community where work and resources were shared, and where women achieved equality with men.
The idea had come from a charismatic Finnish writer by the name of Matti Kurikka, who had visions of a Utopian community that he called Kalevan Kansa (the People of Kaleva). He at first went to Australia to try to establish a community there. Meanwhile, Finnish miners in Nanaimo, fed up with inhumane working and living conditions, were trying to find a solution to their problems. They wrote to Kurikka, asking him to come to Canada to help create a new and independent society. He came in 1900, and together they went to Victoria to choose the location of the community. Without any prior knowledge of Malcolm Island, they simply chose it from a pamphlet that outlined its assets.
Malcolm Island is situated east of Port McNeill between the Broughton and Queen Charlotte Straits. When the Finns arrived, it was being used as seasonal hunting grounds by the Kwakwaka’wakw, and there were only traces of non-native settlement.
The Finnish group believed that there was a vast amount of arable land on the island but soon found that clearing the dense coastal rain forest for planting was a much larger task than originally estimated. Although it would have been easier and more practical to hunt and fish, the Sointula Finns were not comprised of hunters, fishers or even farmers for that matter, but as Paula Wild says in her book Sointula, Island Utopia, the male population was made up of tradesmen such as tailors and shoemakers. Surviving in the harsh outdoors had to be learned by many. Fortunately though, they survived as they became successful at fishing the plentiful herring, eulachon and salmon; and to earn income, they supplied sockeye to Rivers Inlet canneries.
Kurikka was an attractive and charismatic man, and initially, about 200 people followed him to Sointula. Eventually about 2,000 people came and went from the settlement; many leaving disillusioned as they realized that Kurikka’s idealism was not founded on practical considerations. He had no notion of how to use the islanders’ limited income wisely. A close associate of Kurikka’s from Finland, August Mäkelä came to assist with directing the community.
Although many of his followers accepted Kurikka’s ideas about having no need for religion, as the natural environment was the ‘church’, some of his more radical ideas about no boundaries in male and female relationships proved less popular. This early ‘free love’ philosophy, coupled with other obscure notions like vegetarianism in a place where animal protein was necessary to survival were not conducive to creating the harmonious commune that Kurikka envisioned. Mäkelä and Kurikka held opposing viewpoints and in the end, when faith in Kurikka dwindled to the point where he was ousted from the island, it was Mäkelä who remained and was the guiding light for the community.
When Kurikka left, the Kalevan Kansa as a collective dissolved, but the community that had been founded on its ideals remained. People were united by common language and rituals such as taking group saunas, and eating together in the communal hall, where they often gathered for music and entertainment.
A cooperative general store was established in 1909 so that there would be less dependence on purchasing goods from outside the island, and an employee, Meralda Pink related that “In the old days we had a really big crew. The store was a happy place, we all spoke Finn and were good friends.” (Sointula, Island Utopia).
Many of the men had become commercial fishermen by the 1930s and fishing boats were being constructed in Sointula. People also keep hundreds of chickens and several cows and were able to sell their excess produce.
The Finnish people of Sointula never did adopt organized religion, and marked births, deaths and other life altering ceremonies in their own way.
The hardy Finns found ways to make Malcolm Island the home they desired it to be, and by the 1940s, the population had grown to 450.
Today, although the population of Sointula is no longer strictly Finnish, it remains a close knit community where the ideals of self sufficiency and living in harmony with nature are still vital.
As Mikko Saikku in Utopians and Utilitarians says, “For many visitors to Vancouver Island, Sointula and Malcolm Island have become synonymous with the striking beauty of the B.C. coast and a lifestyle in harmony with the natural world.”