A TOAST TO FINLAND!


(Mårten Beijar photo)

You may have missed it, but the land of my ancestors recently celebrated it’s centennial. On Dec. 6, 1917,   small but mighty Finland officially severed itself from Russia, becoming an independent country for the first time. Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers did not protest. I remember leafing through one of my great aunt’s photo albums and seeing a grainy picture of the raising of the Finnish flag in their small community for the first time. A bit more than two and a half years after independence, my mother was born in the fishing/farming village of Sideby. When I first visited “the relatives” in the winter of 1971, I was given the very room where her birth took place. Under the mountain of blankets my two great aunts supplied, I remember going to sleep that night looking at the same walls that oversaw my mother’s first breath of life and pondering the chains of existence. Because my great-grandfather August Jossfok, a rough-looking, bearded fellow in big boots, and a young woman down the road, Ida Mathilda Karlsdottor, found favour with each other 130 years ago, I am here today. (My grandmother’s family was from the small farming community of Karperö, further north.)

My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, part of the predominantly Swedish-speaking communities that line the Gulf of Bothnia, left over from the several hundred years when Finland was part of imperial Sweden. In the old days, Swede-Finns spoke only Swedish. When the family left for Canada in 1928, my mother didn’t know a word of Finnish. Few outside Finland realize that the country remains officially bilingual, although mixed-marriages and migration to Sweden have reduced those for whom Swedish is their first language to barely 6 percent of the population.

In fact, there is probably much else people don’t know about Finland, besides saunas, Sibelius (a Swede-Finn, incidentally), the prowess of its hockey players and its remarkable education system, which consistently produces student results among the best in the world. Herewith, in honour of Finland’s 100th birthday, are a dozen things you might like to know about a country that has punched above its weight for a long time, and continues to marches to its own drummer. (Even before independence, Finland had been the first jurisdiction in Europe to give women the right to vote, in 1906–10 years before good old Canada.) First, some history.

 

  1. The fierce polarized politics of early Finland were frightful. Immediately after independence, conservative Whites and socialist Reds duked it out for ascendancy, resulting in a short, brutal civil war that claimed 36,000 lives in a country of just three million people. With the critical assistance of several thousand German troops, the Whites were victorious.

 

  1. The bitterness of the civil war had a tangible impact on far-away Canada. Thousands of “Red Finns” left their divided homeland, now in the hands of the vengeful Whites, and emigrated to Canada. Many found work in the logging camps and mines of northern Ontario. The new arrivals did not leave their politics behind. A number became political activists and radical union organizers. In 1929, Janne Voutilainen and Viljo Rosvall “drowned”, while trying to organize some nearby loggers. Most believe they were murdered by anti-union thugs. Their funeral was the largest ever held in Thunder Bay, which retains a Finnish flavor even today, most notably with the venerable, 100-year old Hoito restaurant, still on the bottom floor of the Finnish Labour Temple. My grandfather was also among the “Red Finn” contingent, but thankfully, he brought his family to Vancouver.

 

  1. In World War II, Finland was an ally of Germany. Hitler made a brief visit in 1942 to wish the country’s military leader, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a happy 75th birthday. The previous year Finnish forces had attacked the Soviet Union to regain territory lost to the USSR during the Winter War. After some initial success, the venture ended disastrously. After the war, the Soviets exacted heavy reparations, claimed a chunk of border territory, and took jurisdiction over a strategic peninsula not that far from Helsingfors (as Swede-Finns call the capital) until 1956. Finland was also required to remain “neutral” in world affairs, a position they scrupulously maintained until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

  1. During the post-war years, Finland established one of the most extensive state social services systems in the world, believing, along with other Nordic countries, that governments have a duty to intervene on behalf of their citizens. Shredding the neo-con argument that taxes and government get in the way of economic development, Finland’s per-capita income has more than held its own among other Western industrialized countries. In 2016, the World Economic Forum ranked tiny Finland first in terms of World Human Capital. Other international reports found Finland the most stable country in the world from 2011-2016, and second best in terms of the gender gap. As baseball broadcaster Mel Allen used to say: “How about that?!”

 

  1. Finland has military conscription. All my male cousins, on turning 18, had to interrupt their education to serve at least six months with the Finnish army.

 

  1. Coalition governments are the order of the day. For many years (until 2015), the small Swedish People’s Party (Svenksa Folkpartiet), supported by just about all of my relatives, was part of the government.

 

  1. In 2014, Finland became the first, and so far, only country to put homoerotic drawings by a gay artist on its stamps. They were the work of the artist known as Tom of Finland (Touko Lasksonen), subject of a recent bio-pic this year by director Dome Karukoski. (The one below is the mild one.)

 

  1. Of course, Finland isn’t perfect. Alcoholism remains a big problem, no doubt contributing to the country’s relatively high homicide rate, while youth unemployment is stuck at around 20 per cent. And, as in most European countries, anti-immigration sentiment has become an issue, fueling the growth of a worrisome, nationalist party. The good news, however, is that political leaders banded together in June to freeze out the Finns Party, after it elected a hard-line, anti-immigration leader. Twenty elected members of the party left to help the coalition government maintain its majority. “This decision will likely ruin our political careers, but we are determined to do this,” they said in a statement. “Today, we are not politicians, but we are doing this for the fatherland’s sake.” How rare is that in today’s political world?

 

  1. In the final of the world hockey championship in 2011, playing against their loathed, arch-rivals, Finland whacked neighbouring Sweden 6-1. It was the greatest triumph in the history of Finnish hockey.

 

  1. Believe it or not, the national sport of Finland is not hockey, but baseball. However, banish any thought of the North American version of rounders.  The Finns call it Pesäpallo, and the rules seem to come from outer space. Would anyone else other than the fun-loving Finns have three designated players on each team called “Jokers”? You think cricket is complicated? It takes this guy more than five minutes to explain all the ins and outs of Pesäpallo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yom1_q8WRck Unlike any sport you’ve ever seen.

 

  1. Well, maybe not. There’s also the Finns’ fondness for fen football, otherwise known as swamp soccer. The august New York Times had a hard time taking it seriously, headlining their story on the  competitive bog slog: “Finland has a sports screw loose.” This from a country that relishes bowling. But never mind. Read about it here. Try hard not to laugh. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/sports/finland-has-a-sports-screw-loose.html

12. Last, but certainly not least: according to the Guinness World Records, the 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias (a soapstone vendor), is the world’s longest palindromic word in everyday use. That prompted my friend Lorne Slotnick to ponder: “Why would the word for a soapstone vendor be in “everyday use”?” And the answer is: Because it’s Finland!

Happy 100th birthday, land of my mother’s birth, and a Merry Christmas/God Jul/Hyvää Joulua to you all.

 

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Auntie Irene, Helena Gutteridge and The Mayor

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At the age of 70, my beloved Auntie Irene, under her scholastic name of Irene Howard, published her definitive biography of Helena Gutteridge, Vancouver’s first woman “alderman”. Ten years later, when she was 80, she completed her remarkable book Gold Dust On His Shirt, a moving saga of her family’s working class life in the gold mines of British Columbia, feathered with impeccable research of the times. At 90 she published a very fine poem, which is reproduced below.

And one morning last month, at the age of 94 and a half, Auntie Irene sat in the front row of chairs arrayed in a room off the main lobby at city hall, looking as elegant and vivacious as anyone who pre-dated Vancouver’s Art Deco municipal masterpiece by 14 years could dare to look.

She was there as a guest of honour, and rightly so, for the unveiling of a national historic plaque paying tribute to Helena Gutteridge, the woman she had written so authoritatively about more than 20 years earlier. Without Auntie Irene’s book, Gutteridge would almost certainly be just another footnote in the city’s neglected history of those who fought to make life better. With justification, Auntie Irene had subtitled her biography: The Unknown Reformer. Not only did her chronicle bring Gutteridge to public prominence, it was she who submitted the application for her recognition to Parks Canada and the august Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The application had been gathering dust throughout the nearly 10 years of government by the Harper Conservatives, who evinced no interest in commemorating activists, let alone a strong, challenging woman like Helena Gutteridge.

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From the moment she arrived in Vancouver in 1911, Gutteridge had set to work to change the way things were. She was a relentless campaigner for women’s suffrage, a social reformer and active trade unionist, president of the local tailors’ union and the first woman to crack the executive of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. In 1914, she established a successful cooperative to provide employment for impoverished women, producing toys, dolls and Christmas puddings. She was the driving force behind the province’s first minimum wage for women and led a courageous, spirited, four-month strike by women laundry workers in the fall of 1918.

Marriage and a move to a Fraser Valley arm curtailed her activism for a time, but the Depression re-ignited her fire. Her marriage over, she returned to Vancouver a strong supporter of the new CCF and in 1937, Gutteridge entered history as the first woman elected to city council, championing, among other causes, low-income housing. Demonstrating anew her commitment to the oppressed, she hired on as a welfare officer in a Japanese-Canadian internment settlement, quarreling at times with bureaucrats who criticized her for being too generous. At the age of 66, low on money, Gutteridge went to work for a time at a city cannery. Despite the physical toll, she told friends she appreciated the chance to learn about the harsh conditions faced by her fellow assembly-line workers. For the rest of her life, living on a small pension, she threw herself into the cause of international peace, rejecting attempts to brand her as a “red”. When she died at the age of 81, her passing was noticed, but barely.

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Now, thanks largely to Auntie Irene, the contribution to the cause by Helena Gutteridge will not be forgotten. The mayor was there, pointing out that “we continue her work in earnest at city hall”. Liberal MP Joyce Murray was there, along with four city councillors, reporters, and of course, members of our family. There was a fuss made over Auntie Irene. She was interviewed by the Vancouver Courier, providing her usual trenchant comments on the significance of Helena Gutteridge. “When she saw something that needed to be done, she rolled up her sleeves and did it,” she told the Courier’s Martha Perkins. “I admire the fact that she was so progressive. She looked at the slums and thought: ‘This shouldn’t be.’” To our pleased applause, she was singled out from the podium, and, at the end of the formalities, the mayor came over to say ‘hello’. Gregor Robertson was more than gracious, He sat down beside Auntie Irene, and the two engaged in a lively conversation both seemed to enjoy. After bantering that she didn’t know whether to call him Your Excellency, Your Worship or Gregor (she settled on ‘Gregor’), she reminded the mayor of Helena Gutteridge’s political work and her passion for social housing. “It was a big and sorry problem, which she just took on and brought the other councilors with her.”

His Worship told me later: “It was great to have a chat with her. It’s always a highlight to connect with elders who have seen this city and world transform.” Indeed, Auntie Irene is almost the last surviving member in our extended family who were part of the resolute generation that persevered through the Depression, World War Two, the Cold War and so much more. The toughest thing I ever faced was running out of dope at a be-in.

Born in Prince Rupert in 1922, she had a childhood of upheaval, moving from mine to mine, living in tents and log cabins, and one of tragedy, shooed into the kitchen at the age of nine, as her mother lay dying on the sofa. There were three elder brothers, Art, Verne and Ed, then Irene and young Freddie. Their life was all about hard work and survival in the toughest of conditions, similar to the lives of so many British Columbians, whose labour built this province. At last, ironically, just as the Depression began, there was permanent work for her father Alfred Nels Nelson and two of “the boys” at the Pioneer Gold Mine near Bralorne. No one got rich. It was the Depression, after all. But there was stability. Inevitably, perhaps, it did not last. In 1935, her father was diagnosed with silicosis. At 60, his life as a working miner was over, with little to show for it but a deadly disease.

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He took up chicken farming in the Fraser Valley. That’s where our families intertwined. My mother’s parents were trying to extract a living from a stone-strewn farm in nearby Aldergrove. She and Irene became lifelong friends. The bonds were further fastened when Irene’s brother Ed married my mother’s younger sister Greta. In January, 1948, Alfred Nels Nelson took his final short breath and was gone. Years later, Auntie Irene wrote, bitterly: “Miners have died before from silicosis, but these men weren’t my father. Some fifty years later, as I write this, I sit and cry, and it’s not just about the oxygen tent and the desperate last gasps and my not being there that night. It’s about the gold, the Christly useless gold (that’s his word, ‘Christly’) stashed away somewhere – in Ottawa at the Royal Mint I guess, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.”

Her upbringing and the stark injustices meted out to ordinary people led to a career that produced numerous historical essays on workers and women, plus, of course, her authoritative account of Helena Gutteridge, which was short-listed for both a BC Book Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Prize and, as mentioned, her moving story of her own immigrant family, Gold Dust On His Shirt. It is a book that cries out for a wider audience.

So, all hail Auntie Irene and her other persona, Irene Howard. When you are ninety-four and a half years old, just waking up to the breaking of another dawn is a big deal. But how gratifying to have had that special day, when we all paid court. Her smile could have melted armies. At times, it truly is A Wonderful Life.

As promised, here is her marvelous poem, a tribute to the working life of her Scandinavian father, published in her 91st year.

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