expanding the parameters of finnishness


Posted by Markus Raty on August 24, 2006

aka: Port Arthur, Thunder Bay, Little Finland

First of all, greetings to all finnophilers from Thunder Bay’s Finns; or at least those whom I came into contact with. They would like you to know that their little slice of Finland in Canada is alive and thriving and invite you for a visit.

I would like to take this opportunity to share with you my take on this most eccentric of cultural phenomenoms.

Thunder Bay’s Finnish population began to grow in earnest around the turn of the 20th century as thousands of Finns in search of work settled in the Port Arthur area, soon finding work as loggers. Soon (1931) over 15% of the city’s population were Finnish immigrants and many institutions that we are still familiar with today (Hoito, Canadan Uutiset, succeeded by the Canadan Sanomat) were already in their third decade of operation.

Today, Thunder Bay is home to approximately 12,000 people of Finnish origin, comprising over 10% of its total population. This concentration is borne out by the aging but still grand Little Finland area of the city, whose epicentre is at Bay and Algoma. There, you will find all manner of Finnish shops, restaurants and cultural institutions all of which have benefited from the recent facelift the area has received.

Though I was born in Toronto, my origins are in Thunder Bay as my parents, having both emigrated from Finland, met there in the early-60’s. In fact, when my folks moved to the TDot in 1974, they were the only ones to do so, leaving me with a plethora of relatives (aunts, uncles, cousins and of course beloved Mummo) in Thunder Bay to visit each summer. Our family is a mixed bag of nuts, some old-school Finns, a few Canadians married in, and then us younger Finnish-Canadians. We speak a brand of Finglish most likely familiar to many of you, and I would submit it is close to being an official language in Thunder Bay.

Days are spent intermittently traveling between the sauna and Lake Superior and evenings are spent in the pursuit of gluttony as the ladies’ restauranting pasts make annual comebacks, if but for a few days at a time. Throughout it all we are regaled by Uncles Kai and John (Jussi) of stories from long ago; of that giant halibut that keeps growing every year and of that ever-elusive ‘even-par’ round of golf. Of course every so often Mummo yells out “Pull Sit!” as she disputes the memories of these legends in their own minds.

In fact I think all of Thunder Bay knows of Mummo, aka Anna, as she is reknowned for her boisterous outbursts and demanding schedule. At 80, she just recently gave up splitting her own firevud but still lights up the sauna daily and takes her beloved Blackie swimming with her in Superior. Having probably cooked and hosted at one point or another for just about all the working men in Thunder Bay, Finnish or not, she is considered one of the Queen Bees of the city’s Finnish community.

At least once a trip we make a pilgirmage to Finntown/Little Finland. There really is nothing like cruising Bay Street, picking up salmiakki and korppus at Scandinavian Deli, a possu from Harri’s Bakery, and maybe stopping in for a lettu or two at the Hoito. Then it’s on to Finn-tastic to chat with Matti about the recent offerings in the sauna heater world and of course no trip would be complete popping into the Finnish Bookstore to check out the new titles. 

After shopping a quick sauna is a must at the legendary Kangas Sauna, home of North America’s largest and best-known sauna spa. Here Lyyli Kangas (founder and sister to Mummo) toiled for several decades, building a thriving business and local landmark with tenacity and perseverance (also known as SISU). 

But be forewarned before you go, as at least a rudimentary knowledge of Finglish is essential in many places. Although, as the generational torches get passed from grizzled old-timers to their energetic whippersnapper offspring, English is becoming more and more accepted in these parts.

Though the language on the street may be slowly evolving, it certainly isn’t at the expense of the area’s Finnishness, which to this day remains as strong in spirit as it was during those early logging days one hundred years ago.

Every Finn-Canuck should pay homage to the epicentre of our culture and heritage in this country before their traveling days are over. But, do let me know before you go so I can hook you up with the old school crew when youre there.

Cheers, Markus


4 Responses to “Artturi”

  1. Lily said

    Sigh… I spent my high school years in Thunder Bay. It’s been awhile since I’ve been back there. I loved it. My friend is getting married in T. Bay in September and hopefully I’ll be able to go… 🙂

  2. djskip said

    anyone remember the Esso station that you could get lettu at? they even had takeout! AWESOME!

  3. v.ponka said

    I remember that Esso very well…. I even preferred it over the Hoito (though I know saying that is a bit blasphemous!)

  4. djskip said

    i’d agree. good food and shorter wait times PLUS you could get your tank filled and your oil changed! it was a sweet deal!

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