Okay, Canadian trivia fans. What’s the only restaurant in this great country where, depending on your palate, you can order mojakka, suolaka, lohiperunalaatikko or kalakeitto, finished off, if there’s room, with a delicious dessert of karjalapiiraka? A free canoe trip to the nearest Hudson Bay Company trading post if you correctly answered: The Hoito, Thunder Bay’s renowned landmark eatery that has been filling bellies with traditional Finnish food for more than 100 years.
But now, as if there were not enough bad news, word has come through that the beloved institution is at risk of keeping its doors, already closed by COVID-19, shut forever. Faced with renovation debt and a refusal by the RBC to defer loan payments in spite of the pandemic, members of the Finlandia Association, which owns both the Hoito and the heritage Finnish Labour Temple that houses it, voted May 20 to liquidate. Ugh.
The end of the historic restaurant would be a terrible loss, not only to my ancestral Swede-Finnish roots, but to Thunder Bay and lovers of heritage everywhere. It’s no overstatement to call the Hoito a national treasure.
And just to be clear. We are not talking about some forlorn vestige of a once-thriving enterprise falling victim to changing times, preserved in nostalgic amber. Before the lockdown, the Hoito was way popular, with weekend lineups and high marks on all those Yelp and Trip Advisor sites from charmed tourists. I was there for Sunday brunch last summer and, the place was packed. Orders for its thin Finnish pancakes, which our family calls Swedish pancakes, kept the friendly servers run off their feet.
Not surprisingly, news that the Hotio may have served its last lätty has prompted a wave of dismay in Thunder Bay. Local Finnish-Canadians have banded together to explore a new, cooperative direction for the beleaguered Finnish Labour Temple, itself proclaimed a national heritage site in 2015. And a GoFundMe drive has been launched aimed specifically at saving the Hoito, which had been the major revenue producer for the Labour Temple. It didn’t take me long to donate.
Besides the Hoito’s long culinary tradition, the restaurant has a fascinating, working-class history. It was launched in 1918 as a workers’ cooperative by supporters of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW was the union of choice for immigrant Finnish loggers cutting trees in the rugged, isolated bush camps of Northern Ontario. In the early years of the 20th century, the camps had some of the worst working conditions and poor pay in Canada. So perhaps it was only natural that they came to be populated in large numbers by tough, independent immigrants from Finland, used to hard work and drawn to the bush by the same conifer forests and cold weather that prevailed in their hardscrabble homeland. Their urban base was Port Arthur, which amalgamated with adjacent Fort William in 1970 to form present day Thunder Bay.
Many were radicals, already politicized by the state of affairs in Tsarist-ruled Finland or driven leftward by the harsh capitalism they found in Canada. They shared a strong cooperative spirit, preferring collective action over individualism and leaders. To fight back against the lumber camp bosses, the loggers shunned centralized unions in favour of the IWW, the legendary Wobblies, even as support for these warriors of the working class waned in the rest of Canada.
By 1910, Port Arthur had an imposing Finnish Labour Temple, which quickly became a hotbed of socialist and cultural activities for the city’s growing Finnish community. A few years later, IWW organizer Armas Topias Hill heard from men in the lumber camps of their pressing need for a place to eat inexpensive, home-cooked meals when, they came to Port Arthur. The Labour Temple’s board of directors agreed, and the Hoito restaurant opened in the building’s lower floor on May Day, 1918.
It was a cooperative from the start, financed by 59 member shareholders, who each kicked in $5 “comrade loans”. The name was chosen from the Finnish word for ‘care’: hoito. Customers ate at long communal tables. With Hill, the IWW organizer as its first manager, and all restaurant staff members belonging to the Wobblies, the workers were in charge. The Hoito advertised itself as “the only restaurant in the city owned and controlled by the (customers and workers) themselves”. When revenue eclipsed costs, prices came down. The restaurant’s communal policies were vital during the dark days of the Depression, as its hastily-established food kitchens helped feed many of the impoverished unemployed that crowded into the city.
The Finnish Labour Temple upstairs, meanwhile, buzzed with political and cultural activities with a socialist slant. Where else could you see such plays as Luokkaviah (Class Hatred), Yleislakko (The General Strike), or Tukkijoella (The Lumberjacks)? The Wobblies maintained office space there for years, including the Canadian bureau of the Industrialisti, the Finnish-language IWW newspaper that did not cease publication until 1975. All this reflected the fact that the large majority of Finnish immigrants to Northern Ontario were “Red Finns”, as opposed to the right-wing “White Finn” faction that emerged triumphant from the vicious civil war that convulsed Finland, after the country’s independence from Russia. One of the women cooks at the Hoito had spent a year in jail in Finland for her Red Finn activities during the civil war.
LIke the IWW labour martyr Joe Hill, the Hoito never died. It survived the economic ravages of the Depression, World War Two, the gradual disappearance of the radical left and anti-capitalist loggers who provided its base for so many years , changing eating habits, and a decline in the city’s once-significant Finnish-Canadian population. And let’s say it one more time: it was revenue from the still-popular, bare-bones Hoito that helped keep the Finlandia Association going, not the other way around. Let’s hope it doesn’t go down with the ship.
Five years ago, the last time the Hoito’s future was threatened by the financial predicament of the Finlandia Association, local filmmaker Kelly Saxberg, a great grand-daughter of Finnish immigration, issued an impassioned plea on its behalf: “It’s time to say, ‘listen, this is an historic landmark, this is a unique restaurant, this is the only living monument to Finnish immigration in North America.’” That hasn’t changed.
My Canada includes the Hoito. There’s no place like it. Please help, if you can. You can donate here: https://ca.gofundme.com/f/save-the-hoito?utm_source=tbnewswatch.com&utm_campaign=tbnewswatch.com&utm_medium=referral