Sointula, British Columbia
Associated name: Harmony Island
Location: On Malcolm Island, which lies between Vancouver Island and the mainland, northeast of Port McNeill, in the vicinity of Alert Bay. 50.6306, -127.0186.
See also: Sammon Takojat BC
This utopian colony was established by Finnish immigrants and even though it was short-lived in that form, a community with a strong Finnish heritage and some co-operative institutions has continued for decades.
The visions of utopia
The idea for Sointula originated in the Finnish temperance organizations of the 1890s associated with the coal mines of Vancouver Island. The working and living conditions led to high rates of drunkenness, debt and death. Miners had to move repeatedly from one mine to another and each time had to find or construct their own accommodation. Talk of an independent, stable community for Finns based on socialist-cooperative principles evolved into a decision by twenty Finns to start looking for the resources they would need to realize their aspiration. They decided they wanted an inspirational leader and sought out Matti Kurikka (1863-1915). He had been editor of a labour daily in Helsinki but at that time was in Australia trying, unsuccessfully, to establish a utopian community. He arrived in Nanaimo in 1900. Matti Kurikka in turn felt he needed another person to help with this project and asked his friend A.B. Mäkelä (1863-1932) to come from Finland, which he did.
The philosophies of these two men, Kurikka and Mäkelä (a.k.a. Austin McKela), and the relationship between them illustrate different dimensions of utopianism. Kurikka, who was also a poet and playwright, saw Sointula as utopia-in-the-making, and described that vision in the newspaper he founded, Aika (or Aiki-lehti, meaning “Time”). Sointula means “place of harmony” in Finnish. The settlement was to be deeply rooted in Finnish culture, a harmonious brotherhood, drawing its creation from the idea of harmony as a visible and invisible universal spirit. In Kurikka’s vision, Sointula would be just one in a series of similar communities that together would convince the broader society to choose spiritual over materialistic values, and peaceful co-existence over competition. He believed in Christian values but not the Christian church. He was called a theosophist, a believer in insight over empirical knowledge.
Mäkelä, by contrast, was more pragmatic and his dream was more in line with socialist materialism. He seemed to imagine enthusiastic people building an idyllic village with trees, parks, schools, public buildings and workshops, with promenades along the sea coast, all of it well away from the demands of the capitalist economy. In his memoir, Mäkelä wrote that, paradoxically, and despite their best intentions, Sointula was in the clutches of capitalism from the very start because the founding organization had to borrow money to buy its initial equipment and could never eliminate this debt. Instead the debt grew and was a major contributor to the colony’s downfall. While for Kurikka the good community would emerge out of good thinking and Christian values, for Mäkelä it would come from building a village suited to living well collectively.
The Finnish settlers organized the “Kalevan Kansa Colonization Company, Limited” (KKCC). “Kalevan Kansa” is an ancient name for the Finnish people. The objectives of the KKCC were mainly to obtain land in British Columbia, establish, build and maintain colonies for Finnish immigrants and others who would engage in agriculture, fishing, lumbering, and trades. The KKCC negotiated a deal in November 1901 that resulted in the BC government granting to it the whole of Malcolm Island (approximately 11,000 hectares; about 24 km long and less than 4 km wide).
Malcolm Island was part of the traditional lands occupied and used by the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, and specifically used by four tribes collectively known as the Kwakiutl tribes.
Malcolm Island was a resource site used especially for berry-picking. The grant to the Finns in effect disregarded then-existing claims by the Kwakiutl.
The land grant came with conditions set by the BC government. The KKCC was obliged to meet these stipulations within seven years at which point legal title to the Island would be conferred. Requirements included improving the land by at least $2.50 per acre, constructing roads, wharf, and public buildings; and settling 350 people who had to become British subjects, and educating their children in English. The KKCC collapsed well before those conditions were met.
The KKCC was formally organized with a list of officers, voting rules, and procedures for reporting annually to the full membership. Membership in the KKCC cost $200 which settlers were expected to pay when their application for membership was approved and before traveling to Malcolm Island. Three problems arose. First, Kurikka spread the word so successfully about how wonderful Sointula would be that people flocked there often without having been processed, before paying the membership fee, or sometimes even without the likelihood of ever being able to pay it. Arrangements were made for an alternate membership class. It required payment of an initial $50 with the rest to be paid off via a contribution of extra labour. This could have worked if the fruits of that labour could have been sold. But here was the second problem: the skills of those who came to Sointula hardly matched the fishing, lumbering and agricultural work that needed to be done in order that the community had both the necessities of life for itself and a surplus to sell. Third, without cash from new members or sales of products the KKCC kept falling further and further into debt. All sorts of people came — poets, writers, philosophers, as well as people with railroad building and mining skills. But few knew how to fell timber, clear land, build a saw mill, or manage cattle. The mismatch of skills and needs, together with the growing debt, contributed to the eventual failure of the KKCC in mid-1905.
A townsite began to take shape. The first building to be occupied was a cabin left by previous settlers said to be English but referred to in a first-hand account as “the Welshman’s house.” The second was the sauna built by the first KKCC members to arrive on the Island. Apparently it served as the settlers’ initial gathering place. There was unanimity about building the townsite on a peninsula on the southern coast on Queen Charlotte Strait, and about several of its features. For example, a strip of land was reserved for a shoreline market place; another strip was to be kept open in anticipation of a shoreline street with foreshore parks and a protective embankment. Wide streets running the length of the peninsula were to be intersected by narrower cross streets at regular intervals. The process of dividing the townsite land into individual lots was to result in a maximum lot size of 120 by 80 feet (about 36 by 24 meters). Subdivision of lots was forbidden although permission could be sought to put a second building on a site. Regulations would ensure the shoreline never fell permanently into private hands. Some activities were located elsewhere on the Island.
A large three-storey building was constructed in 1902 with 28 sleeping rooms, dining room, kitchen and storeroom, plus a meeting room on the third floor. Everyone ate together; no cabins had kitchens. This building burned to the ground in January 1903 and 11 people perished. The likely cause was the piping system used to heat the building. After that, small houses dominated the townsite, and a new meeting house was built. A building where parents could leave their children while they worked eventually went up but was not very successful. A small school, mill, pier and several other buildings were put up before the enterprise had to declare bankruptcy.
Cultural activities such as a choir, plays, a library, and poetry readings were part of life in Sointula.
Claims against Matti Kurikka escalated, including that he mismanaged money and contracts, and he was accused of promoting “free love” in Sointula. Those problems combined with the clashing philosophies at the heart of what the settlement was intended to be, and Kurikka’s poor management skills led to him leaving Malcolm Island in October 1904. A few of his supporters at Sointula went with him. In January 1905 Kurikka founded another utopian community about 50 km east of Vancouver — Sammon Takojat BC. Austin Mäkelä took over the lead at Sointula. However, the KKCC lasted only a few more months, declaring bankruptcy in May 1905.
Participants in the KKCC left several first-hand records. For example, one of the original settlers and the person who attracted Matti Kurikka to Canada was Matti Halminen. His account was translated from the Finnish into English by Allan H. Salo and is in the appendix to Salo’s 1978 thesis. See Halminen for information about the early days including the building of the townsite, how the business affairs were managed, and what the Island was like physically. Some settlers were interviewed: see Fish 1982. Salo gives a particularly careful analysis of Sointula based on extensive research including the myth in the Finnish epic poem Kalevala of North Farm which resembled Malcolm Island physically in Kurikka’s imagination. He also uses many quotations from Aika, the newspaper, to elucidate the philosophies behind this utopian experiment. For information about Aika (or Aika-leht), its probable publication dates are: May 17, 1901 to September 20, 1902; and November 1903 to December 4, 1904, published every two weeks. It was sent to various addresses mainly in the USA and Canada. See Salo 1978, 149, endnote 194. Other important sources are Oberg (1928) and Kolehmainen (1941). The occupation and use of the lands in Kwakwaka’wakw territory is described in detail in Galois (1994). Descriptions of the lands and cultural history of the tribes speaking Kwak’wala are found at the Kwakwaka’wakw website. Paula Wild (1995) provides an overall history of Sointula under the KKCC and up to the 1990s. For overviews of Finns in Canada, see Eklund (1987) and Lindström (1999). For different interpretations of socialist thought expressed by two Finns, Kurikka and Mäkelä, see Wilson (1978), and Wilson (1997) for the socialist legacy on Malcolm Island. In 2013, the Masala Theatre group of Finland, which had created a play about Sointula’s utopian days for its home audience, presented it in Sointula for participants at a conference on utopian themes.
by Beth Moore Milroy
- Eklund, William. 1987. Builders of Canada: History of the Finnish Organization of Canada, 1911-1971. Toronto: Vapaus Publishing Co. Ltd.
- Fish, Gordon. 1982. Dreams of freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula. Victoria, BC: Provincial Archives.
- Galois, Robert. 1994. Kwakwaka’wakw settlements, 1775-1920: A geographical analysis and gazetteer. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
- Halminen, Matti. 1936. Sointula, Kalevan Kansan ja Kanadan Suomalaisten Historiaa. (See translation to English in Salo 1978, below.)
- Kolehmainen, John Ilmari. 1941. “Harmony Island: A Finnish utopian venture in British Columbia.” British Columbia Historical Quarterly 5, 2: 111-123.
- Kwakwaka’wakw territories, culture: http://www.firstnations.eu/fisheries/kwakwakawakw.htm. Accessed 20.04.17.
- Lindström, Varpu. 1999. “Finns.” In Encyclopedia of Canada’s peoples, edited by Paul R. Magocsi. Toronto: Published for the Multicultural History Society of Ontario by the University of Toronto Press.
- Oberg, Kalervo. 1928. “Sointula: A communistic society in B.C.” Graduating thesis. University of British Columbia.
- Salo, Allan H. 1978. “The Kalevan Kansa Colonization Company Ltd.: A Finnish-Canadian millenarian movement in British Columbia. M.A. Thesis (Anthropology), University of British Columbia. Includes Appendix 1: “Sointula: Kalevan Kansan ja Kanadan Suomalaisten Historiaa,” by Matti Halminen. Translated to English by A.H. Salo. pp 231-400.
- Wild, Paula. 1995. Sointula: Island utopia. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing.
- Wilson, J. Donald. 1978. “Matti Kurikka and A.B. Mäkelä: Socialist thought among Finns in Canada, 1900-1932.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 10, 2: 9-21.
- Wilson, J. Donald. 1997. “The socialist legacy on Malcolm Island after the collapse of the utopian settlement of Sointula,” in Varpu Lindström, Oiva Saarinen and Börje Vähämaäki, eds., Melting into Great Water: Papers from Finnforum V. Toronto: University of Toronto. Finnish Studies Program, pp 155-164.