The first text message arrived at 7:23 p.m. on December 22, 2021 — the end of one of the shortest days of the year, and the beginning of one of the darkest days of my life. 

“Somebody is posting on Facebook that the Hoito is on fire,” a close friend I’ve known since childhood wrote. “Not sure if it’s true or not.” 

My cell phone lit up with a barrage of similar texts, buzzing in my hand like a barber’s clippers. 

In Thunder Bay, “The Hoito” is shorthand for both the Hoito Restaurant and the 111-year-old, two-storey red-brick Finnish Labour Temple that housed the popular local eatery in its basement. The Hoito first opened its doors on May Day in 1918. 

Home for the holidays to visit family, I rushed to the scene to investigate. I found myself witnessing a tragedy—not just the end of a building, but an end to the thousands of stories woven into its life.

I stood there, speechless, along with dozens of onlookers. Some brushed back tears as black smoke surged out of vents, the Thunder Bay Fire Department fighting a losing battle. Flames engulfed the central polygonal tower, flickering against the silvery metal shingles of the cupola—the temple’s most recognizable feature. Somewhere behind the flames and smoke, the motto remained carved deep in stone—Labor Omnia Vincet. “Labour Conquers All.” 

Before I left, I thought briefly of the nameless stonemason who left those marks more than a century ago. The tower eventually collapsed into a heap of fire, smoke, and ash.

The blaze that destroyed the temple started somewhere on the second floor, spreading rapidly to the attic. What was left of the Finnish Labour Temple was bulldozed, and as I write this the foundation of the new Finlandia luxury condo development is being laid where the Hoito once stood. The new development will pay homage to the original facade, but the original building—a designated national historic site, an iconic monument to the Finnish-Canadian immigrant experience, and, for much of the 20th century, a major centre of radical working-class organizing—is gone. 

This is a story of loss. But it’s also a story about the Temple’s legacy as a working-class institution—on Thunder Bay, on my own Finnish family, and on countless others. 

Before the last remains of the Temple were taken to their final resting place in a local landfill, a time capsule dating to the building’s construction was recovered from within its walls. 

From there to here

It’s a rainy Saturday morning in Winnipeg, four months after the fire. The piercing but familiar sound of my alarm clock ringtone irritates me back to life. I glance at the translucent, leopard-spot pattern of April rain speckled across my bedroom window. Then I grab my stuff and dash to the car. 

The highway to Thunder Bay, passes Treaty 1, Treaty 3, and Robinson-Superior lands.

It’s raining the entire drive from the gridded streets of downtown Winnipeg—the “cradle of the Canadian labour movement”—to the Manitoba-Ontario border. The tall, angular urban environment eases down into farmland. Then the expansive prairie sky is gradually pierced by boreal conifers and undulating Canadian Shield. Rain clouds that foist a greyer hue on the tangled, post-industrial rust of the Fort Frances paper mill also blanket the rugged, rocky outcropped beauty of northwestern Ontario, down the long lonely road to Thunder Bay. My hometown.

In the sparsely populated northern hinterland of Ontario, time is measured as much by seasonal rhythms as by the boom-and-bust cycles of the resource extraction industries that dominate the economy. 

Here, fortunes are made—not for those whose work, but rather for those who own. Toronto’s Bay Street financial district is some 1,300 kilometres down the road, but it’s a world away from Thunder Bay’s Bay Street, where the Labour Temple once stood as the centrepiece of a Finnish working-class neighbourhood. What dignity and wealth working people in Thunder Bay enjoyed, they had won in battles with the investors and corporate headquarters of the farther-away Bay Street.

Many early Finnish migrants arrived in the years before the 1917 Russian Revolution, during the sortovuodet (years of oppression) when the Tsarist autocracy ruled Finland. More arrived a few years later, fleeing the repression in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, a failed workers’ revolution. This time the guns pointed at their heads had changed hands: they were held not by the Russian Empire but their own post-independence government.

These are the people who built the Finnish Labour Temple in 1910 and filled it with theatre, athletics, lectures, union and political meetings, and the dreams that they had for a better world.

Upon my arrival, I’ll witness the opening of a time capsule. As a writer, I feel fortunate and curious to be witnessing a revelation of a rich history. As a Finn from Thunder Bay, I feel equally cursed to be living at what might be that history’s lowest ebb.

From one Bay Street to another

Thunder Bay’s Bay Street in 2008 (left) and Bay Street’s RBC Plaza (right).

The time capsule, like the building itself, may have been lost forever, if not for the stoic determination of the Thunder Bay Finnish Canadian Historical Society, which alerted the demolition crew to the capsule buried in the southwest corner of the foundation. The capsule was recovered from the rubble on the first day of Lent and finally opened in front of around 20 invited guests and media after Easter, on April 26.

In recent years, the Labour Temple operated close to a break-even level while managing to service the debts incurred in the process of renovating and modernizing the building nearly a decade earlier. By 2013, the building was, for the first time, fully accessible for those with limited mobility. The upgrades that prevented the temple from falling into a state of total disrepair came at the cost of borrowing money. 

Some members—many of whom belonged to the more apolitical and even conservative-leaning wave of Finnish immgration to Canada in the 1950s and 1960s—could not accept the decision to take out a loan. They walked out in protest, kicking off a regrettable and long-lasting period of infighting.

Since the mid-1970s, the Hoito served as the primary economic engine of the Labour Temple and made the hall’s other cultural and community functions possible. The pandemic lockdown cut off that vital income and the temple missed one bi-monthly loan payment—of less than $2,000—to the Royal Bank of Canada.

RBC, headquartered at an eponymous plaza on the other Bay Street, reported a net income of $11.4 billion in 2020—roughly $1.3 million per hour each day that year. But it noticed that missed payment, and set into motion the circumstances that would end with the destruction of the Labour Temple.

At the end of May 2020 the membership of the Finlandia Association—the non-profit cultural association that owned the hall—voted to liquidate the corporation. The building and its assets would be sold to the highest bidder. In September 2020, a private developer bought the temple and set out to convert the building into high-end apartments.

At the time, I mourned the loss of the hall as a community centre but remained hopeful the Hoito would be able to re-open in its original location. The fire came as a kind of second death.

A message from the past

Historians examine the contents of the time capsule on April 26.

The time capsule—a small, textbook-sized copper box—had sat undisturbed for nearly 113 years.

It was a melancholic experience. Unsealed only after the building that contained it has passed from existence, a time capsule is a womb in a posthumous birth. It’s a symbol of creation and destruction—the first ceremonial object to be placed inside the foundation, and the final relic to be extracted from the rubble as demolition wraps up.

The capsule held two copies of the October 21, 1909 issue of Työkansa (The Working People), a socialist journal whose offices once occupied the same corner of the building from which the time capsule was recovered, one copy of Työmies (The Worker) from 1909, a Finnish-American socialist newspaper, a small bundle of handwritten minutes that record the decision to build the Labour Temple, and—most precious of all—a copy of the speech delivered by Moses Hahl for the cornerstone-laying ceremony on October 26, 1909.

A self-taught socialist intellectual, writer, and organizer, Hahl arrived in North America in 1903. As touring speaker and journalist for many of the leading Finnish-language leftist publications of the time, he drew inspiration from Marxism, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the ideas of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Hahl’s speech began: “The working class today stands before a great historical undertaking which it is already, in part, accomplishing.” 

For him, the undertaking meant nothing less than the total liberation of humankind by the working class. Hahl rages against the greed and hypocrisy of the ruling classes, the absurdity and wastefulness of the military, and its use for imperial conquest abroad and repression of the working class at home. He laments the deplorable level of bourgeois “civilization,” stressing the importance of workers’ education and warns against petit-bourgeois elements intent on using the growing socialist political movement for private gain.

In a passage that anticipates the post-First World War revolutionary wave, Hahl optimistically writes that “in another ten or twenty years” the socialist movement will no longer be ridiculed, but rather, an “awakening class power” will be “more mighty than the wallets of the capitalists.”

Generously interpreted, Hahl’s Nietzschean-flavoured socialism put forward true individuality and autonomy as the promise of liberation from the shackles of capitalist exploitation. The ideal of individuality could never be truly realized in a system of wage labour—whether that of private ownership or state capitalism. 

Genuine self-realization, in Hahl’s view, is the ultimate product of collective struggle in the form of a socialist society. The brilliance of all human ingenuity—of science and learning—would at last be placed at the disposal of a humanity freed from the imperatives of the profit motive. 

Hunger and poverty, in his account, are the most ruthless and cruel masters. None can be said to be truly free until both are eliminated once and for all.

Working-class caretakers

Hahl’s speech embodies many of the attitudes of the time—when the Port Arthur Finnish Local of the Socialist Party of Canada controlled the Finnish Labour Temple. The organization that controlled a majority of the building’s shares called the shots, and changes in who held that majority position reflect changes in the Finnish-Canadian working class over the decades.

From the rather doctrinaire Marxists of the Socialist Party during construction, the political affiliation of the hall shifted to the Social Democratic Party of Canada barely a year later. In 1919, it switched again to the One Big Union of Canada, and finally, to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) in 1924. 

A labour demonstration in front of the Labour Temple in the 1930s.

New immigrants to Canada—above all the Finnish and Ukrainian organizations that supplied the bulk of the Socialist Party’s membership—sought immediate improvements in the difficult and poorly-paid jobs that they were working. 

The Socialist Party dismissed efforts to improve wages and working conditions as reforms which would at best strengthen the capitalist system by merely blunting the sharpest edges of exploitation. For the early 20th century Socialist Party—with its primarily Anglo leadership employed in the skilled trades—class struggle and the one true path to socialism passed almost exclusively through elections and parliamentary-style political action. Many new immigrants left the party just as quickly as they joined, leading to the creation of the Social Democratic Party of Canada. 

By 1914, Finns formed a majority of the Social Democratic Party with some 3,000 members and over 60 locals scattered across the country, representing the political home of most Finnish leftists in Canada. Along with its stronger focus on union organizing, the party allowed its foreign-language sections more autonomy. But the affiliation was short-lived. 

In September 1918, the Canadian federal government used War Measures Act powers to outlaw 14 leftist organizations with large immigrant memberships. The Finnish, Russian, and Ukrainian sections of the Social Democratic Party and the IWW were all banned. Membership in one of the banned organizations—or possession of Finnish, Ukrainian, or Russian literature—could result in massive fines or up to five years in prison. The use of the War Measures Act outraged Finnish socialists. Many had fought in the Finnish Civil War against right-wing military forces backed by the same German Empire that Canadian forces were fighting in Europe. 

Because so many of its readers destroyed the copies in their possession rather than risk fines, imprisonment, or even deportation, there is currently no complete archive of the Finnish-Canadian Työkansa newspaper. The federal government’s action continues to haunt the historical record.

It was also in 1918—months before the government crackdown—that the Hoito restaurant was founded. Loggers could find lodging in many boarding houses on and around Bay Street, but affordable meals were another matter. The idea of a cooperatively-owned restaurant resonated with hungry workers in logging camps returning to the city at the end of the season. The first pancakes were likely served that May. 

Into the void left by the banned groups stepped the One Big Union of Canada (OBU). A radical labour union founded in Calgary in 1919 and largely modelled on the IWW, the OBU set out to organize industrial unions in the logging camps and mines—“unskilled” workers ignored by the craft unions. But factional conflicts in the early 1920s quickly scuttled the OBU’s momentum—two competing tendencies in the Finnish-Canadian working-class movement that emerged from the ashes of the OBU. 

A Communist faction saw the need for a revolutionary political party in addition to union organization. A radical anti-parliamentary faction—tied to the IWW—rejected the ballot box in favour of direct economic action taken by the workers themselves. By 1924, the IWW faction gained majority ownership of the temple.

The Finnish Labour Temple became a key organizing hub for nearly-annual mass strikes that paralyzed the logging industry in the 1920s. Those years laid the foundations for a militant unionism in several industries where “wobble” is still a verb synonymous with wildcat strike action. 

For nearly three decades starting in the 1930s, the hall served as the headquarters of the newly formed Canadian IWW Administration. Itinerant “walking delegates” sent reports to 314 Bay Street from locations across the country, hopping freight trains from town to town, working among the same miners, dockers, loggers, fishers, harvest hands and construction workers that they sought to organize. IWW organizers would also often stay in the same flop houses, stand in the same soup kitchen lines, and serve time in the same jails. The last IWW office in the Labour Temple closed in 1979.

Jordan Staal brings the Stanley Cup through the doors of the Hoito in 2009. Photo: Heikki Vuorela.

The heart of community life

A first-generation immigrant to Canada, I arrived in Thunder Bay in 1980, not quite two years old. The glory years of the Finnish Labour Temple had receded into the past by the time I came on the scene. But like the other Bay Street working-class institutions built by Finnish Wobblies—the People’s Co-op grocery store and the credit union—it retained something of its radical character. Over many years, the secrets of the hall gradually revealed themselves to me.

Some of my earliest memories are from events I attended in the Labour Temple with my family in the early 1980s: dark blue chairs neatly assembled in rows filled to capacity with a multi-generational audience; the warm murmurs of the wooden floor underneath my feet; a brightly-decorated stage for a concert or Christmas gathering; the aroma of coffee; a dizzying climb up the long, fire escape-style stairs leading on the east side of the building; the work-weathered hands and the kindly smile of an elderly stranger, kneeling down to talk to me, delighted to hear me responding in the language of the country that they left decades ago.

The Finnish Labour Temple became, along with hockey arenas and punk rock hall shows, the most important social and cultural institution of my youth. But the lessons and inspiration that I drew from the Hoito Restaurant are the most enduring. 

Lineups on the weekends by customers hungry for the famous, thin crepe-like Finnish pancakes often spilled out the front doors of the Hoito and out onto Bay Street. The restaurant had hosted such varied guests over the years as Ben Fletcher, the famous African-American union leader who spoke on the big stage in the hall in 1927; the Stanley Cup, carried into the Hoito by then-Pittsburgh Penguins centre Jordan Staal; and countless touring bands who performed at the legendary Crocks N Rolls.

An egalitarian ethos had been imprinted on the Hoito from its beginning. Established as a consumers’ co-operative by Finnish IWW lumberworkers, the restaurant opened on May Day in 1918. The restaurant’s original bylaws, in force until 1974, forbade the accumulation of large sums of money. A modest reserve amount would be set aside for rainy days; otherwise, in lieu of dividends, in good times managers could lower prices or procure better food. A monthly general assembly, to which the purchase of a weekly meal ticket entitled any customer to attend, served as the highest decision-making body, and terms on the board of directors were limited to three months.

Although the restaurant ceased to be a co-operative after the Finlandia Club of Port Arthur assumed ownership in 1974, the ethos remained. Hearty meals, big portions at reasonable prices, and an absence of managerial authority over workers—the traditions carried on.

The restaurant’s bustling activity made it the beating heart of the Finnish Labour Temple. A living culture was produced and reproduced with every meal and gathering. Whether lumber workers, students, workers, or travellers passing through, the Hoito served as a welcoming place to break bread. For workers, it was a shelter from the prevailing norms of the labour market. 

Proletarian work ethic

My mother began working at the Hoito as the night cleaner, then later as a dishwasher, then as a line cook in the kitchen. She retired as head cook in 2008—part of an unbroken chain of Finnish female head cooks stretching back to the beginning of last century. 

A sign advertises the Hoito in 1956. Photo: Thunder Bay Museum.

As the youngest of three boys, her single income had the most direct bearing on me. Some of my mother’s coworkers pressured the manager to bump me up on the hiring list, knowing that even the modest income I would earn from cleaning tables on weekends would help the family finances. And so I got my first real job as a busboy at the Hoito. Minimum wage was $6.85, but I got tipped out by the servers. For the price of $1 deducted for each shift, I could eat whatever I wanted.

Times were getting tough; economic restructuring was the order of the day. Mike Harris’s Conservatives came to power in 1995 on a program of neoliberal class warfare targeting workers and the poor, laying waste to the modest supports that had previously helped my mother make ends meet. Lumber and pulp and paper mills throughout the region closed. Unemployment increased as the population of the city decreased. 

It was during this time I started to discover the radical history of the Finnish Labour Temple.

I learned about the history of class struggle in northwestern Ontario and how the hall had served as a key location in epic clashes between workers and bosses. And how a gathering of more than 700 striking coal handlers assembled in the hall in August 1912 to hear speeches by organizers in Finnish, English, Italian, Swedish and Russian, in a violent labour dispute ultimately settled by the armed occupation of the East End neighbourhood by the 96th Regiment, a militia originally formed to support the crushing of the Métis Red River Resistance. I learned of the efforts to organize the lumber camps in the 1920s and 1930s and how the employer’s thugs had murdered union organizers Viljo Rosval and Janne Voutilainen. And I studied the black and white pictures that appeared on the back of the paper, souvenir menu of strikers gathered in front of the hall, knowing that some of the old men who ate at the Hoito every day—and still lived in single-occupancy rooms in the neighbourhood—had fought in those pitched battles.

I also learned that most proletarian of values—not the Protestant work ethic of hard work as a good in and of itself, the pie in the sky lie that Joe Hill warned workers about, but its polar opposite: the more life-affirming idea that if hard work was so noble and redeeming then the bosses would keep it for themselves.

My discovery of this radical heritage, and class consciousness, came just as global social movements emerged to challenge the alphabet soup of the transnational political and financial institutions engaged in selling off public goods to the wealthy for pennies on the dollar.

A logging camp in Northwestern Ontario. Photo: The Walleye.

Facing history

These discoveries came at a good time. But sometimes that radical heritage also found me.

I recall one May Day that I helped organize at the hall in the early 2000s, probably the first such event to be held in the Finnish Labour Temple in at least 30 years. Our event included music, food, drink, the screening of a film on the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, and a speech by historian Jean Morrison. A journalist from the local newspaper arrived, eager to interview event organizers about our celebration. 

When my comments appeared in print the next day, I received an angry phone call from the then-chairman of the board of directors. “Yes, the labour movement was important in the early years of the hall,” he conceded to me in Finnish, after a heated exchange that began in English, “but you make sure that the media stays away—we don’t want to be associated.” I began to feel alienated from my own community. 

But then, on the day of our May Day march, an elderly woman and her daughter came to find the young man with a Finnish name who had been quoted in the local paper. The woman was the last living person to have marched in the funeral procession of the labour martyrs Rosvall and Voutilainen on April 28, 1930—when she was six years old—the largest funeral march in the history of the city—an event made more dramatic by a solar eclipse. She came to find me to deliver a message. “You told the truth,” she said. “Don’t let the people forget how hard it was during the Depression and how we fought back.”

Parties not allowed

In both ethnic and political terms, the Finnish Labour Temple had always been a contested space, where differing and sometimes incompatible interpretations of the building’s meaning and purpose struggled for supremacy. This was especially true after the 1960s as the more apolitical—and sometimes conservative—attitudes of new immigrants from Finland came to be ascendant.

Because of its association with the IWW, more religiously-oriented Finnish immigrants had often complained of blasphemy and even denied the Labour Temple its cultural identity as Finnish. As one letter to the editor published in the local Times-Journal in the 1930s stated, “We Finns regret that the name ‘Finn’ is applied to a hall that the Finns themselves never call by that name, but the ‘I.W.W. Hall,’ as it should be called.”

These attitudes softened with the final major wave of Finnish immigration to Canada during the post-WWII economic boom. New immigrants flocked to the Labour Temple and began to place their own stamp on it. The old Wobblies, still running the hall, made a compromise: recognizing that the shift from a labour hall to a culturally-oriented hall was a fait accompli, they insisted that the new bylaws of the new Finlandia Club ensure that no political party would ever capture it and use it for its own purposes. 

The Finlandia Cooperative’s first product: Hoito’s legendary pancake recipe. Photo: Derek Lankinen

We still hope for care

The Finlandia Co-operative of Thunder Bay, which I helped initiate, was originally formed to purchase the Finnish Labour Temple and restructure it as a multi-stakeholder co-operative. The co-op fell short of that goal at the 11th hour. Undeterred, we shifted our focus on saving the Hoito Restaurant and re-establishing it as a consumer co-operative.

Two months before the fire that destroyed the Finnish Labour Temple, the co-op signed a lease agreement with the new owner, with plans to re-open the Hoito this summer. In our case, history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as more tragedy. Despite the many setbacks, we are holding on to the goal of raising the Hoito up from the ashes. 

To these ends, the co-op launched a dry pancake mix as a way to keep the Hoito firmly in the black. While the pancake mix has sold especially well in the area around Thunder Bay, with some online orders from around North America, the idea is to make the mix available in retail stores nationally.

The co-operative model is an obvious nod to the founders of the Hoito who were satisfied with nothing less than a miniature version of the society that they wanted to live in—building the new society in the shell of the old, as the Wobblies would have put it. But there is an additional dimension to the adoption of the co-op model. Co-ops have been shown to be more resilient through crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and are in fact often formed to satisfy needs during acute social, political, and economic crises. 

The history of the Hoito itself provides ample evidence of this. The democratic and transparent governance structure and horizontal workplace structure, reducing and at times eliminating management altogether, served it well as it successfully navigated major world crises like the Great Depression. 

Up to the 1970s, this model allowed for the payment of good living wages—comparable to those earned by industrial workers in the paper mills and grain elevators—while still serving food at affordable prices. The consumer-owner framework, provided it has sufficient popular support, adds an additional layer of resilience from a sense of loyalty and solidarity generated by member-controlled services that not only satisfy needs but pay out a dividend.

While the Hoito was originally founded to fill minds and bellies, now it has the additional task of cultural preservation. The stakes are high, and in the balance lies an institution that has been central to the survival of a distinct Finnish-Canadian culture as a living force, as something more than a quaint museum piece, frozen in time like taxidermy. Reopening the Hoito is about more than a restaurant: it is about preserving a commons and a cultural space where traditions can be honoured—and grow and develop on their own terms.

The Hoito has always been a political space, and its continuation is a political act in itself. As the late Anthony Bourdain reminded us, “there is nothing more political than food. Food is a reflection, maybe the most direct and obvious reflection of who we are…” 

Hoito recipes have origins in early-20th century Finnish cooking but, like the people, have been transformed by experiences in Canada. The pancakes were hearty breakfast meals made by Finnish cooks in the logging camps. The mojakka beef stew is an interpretation of the mulligan stew often improvised by itinerant workers with whatever ingredients they could find—by hook or by crook. The various casseroles, soups, and desserts, each a meal with a story, are produced and reproduced from recipes which are themselves a kind of historical archive. 

The traditional Finnish foods that have been served for generations—like karjalanpiirakka, viili, hernekeitto, and suolakala—have long been served alongside other dishes. The Hoito has also always been a working-class Canadian diner with working-class Canadian food: hamburgers, hot sandwiches, liver and onions, a rotating lineup of dinner specials, and in its final years, the emergence of new traditions, like a homemade veggie burger and vegan lentil soup. 

The Hoito recipe for success was built on a foundation of large portions, reasonable prices, balancing tradition with change, and the guiding principle that more can be achieved by working together than through individual effort alone. 

As a city and region that has been exploited and abandoned by capital, Thunder Bay may do well to revisit the principles of cooperation, and its own history of mutual aid. It was the same ideology of self-help and collective action that saw the construction of many of the massive terminal grain elevators on the waterfront built by the large farmer producer-co-operative networks; the creation of a municipally-owned telecommunications company, still in existence over a century later. Organized labour has been a key pillar of cooperation and is responsible—more than any other force—for raising the living standards of working people.

The future is unwritten. There is no guarantee of a happy ending to this story. If the Hoito can re-open, it will serve as a toehold in our memories of what came before—a small-scale example of the potential of co-operative efforts and the concern for collective well-being that must animate them. 

Hoito, after all, is the Finnish word for “care.”

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