Sointula ~ The History of ”A Place of Harmony”
Political and economic turmoil motivated many Europeans to immigrate to North America at the end of the nineteenth century. They spread across the country looking for freedom, social justice and economic opportunity.
Tired of being oppressed in Vancouver Island’s coal mines a group of Finn’s sent for charismatic utopian socialist and journalist, Matti Kurrika to lead them. They named their community, Sointula, meaning place of harmony. Their aim was to create a society where property was communal; everyone shared; everyone participated and everyone was equal, including women, a revolutionary concept in those times.
The energetic community developed a foundry, a brickyard, a sawmill and a blacksmith shop. They published AIKA (times), the first Finnish newspaper in Canada, using it to encourage immigrants to come to Sointula.
They believed in “sound body, sound mind” so there was regular exercise sessions, gymnastic programs, music instruction, concerts and drama productions. Unfortunately Kurrika’s leadership proved more idealistic then practical and he left the community after making one too many bad decisions.
Steady and consistent Austin Makela took the reins in an attempt to salvage what remained. To this day he is known as “the one who stayed.” After four years of hardships and disappointments, a devastating fire, fickle markets, hostile creditors, bad planning and worse luck, the members of the Kalevan Kansa Colonization Company sold the assets to the bank and returned the island to the government of British Columbia. However the sisu (spirit) of Sointula was not to be underestimated. The people who remained purchased the land and turned to commercial fishing and hand logging. They dug their roots deeply into the island and built their community with their own visions.
The first residents of Malcolm Island formed the Sointula Co-operative Store Association in 1909 and it is still operating today as British Columbia’s oldest running cooperative. Initially started to supply products and supplies to local farmers and fisherman, as well as being an outlet for local goods, it has been and still is, the heart of Sointula. Over the years the co-op has supplied groceries and professional services. Today it also features hardware, fuel, and dry goods departments.
The Present Day
‘Place of Harmony’ 100 years after it first opened its doors, the Co-op remains the centre of commerce and the social hub of Malcolm Island. You can still hear the melody of the Finnish language spoken in the grocery aisles. Our current population is just over 700 people. We have an elementary school, post office, credit union, library, gas station, hardware store, bakery, a gym and a restaurant.
At one time, Sointula was a major fishing hub on the west coast. With the downsizing of the commercial fishing industry on the coast, our fleet has been reduced, though there are efforts afoot to attract commercial fishermen and recreational boaters throughout the coast to moor their boats in this fishing friendly town.
Independent, individualistic entrepreneurs were and are still attracted to Sointula. Continuing the spirit of the early Finnish settlers, we continue to take pleasure in the arts with an active theatre group and many gifted musicians and artists. We also enjoy a healthy, outdoor lifestyle including bird watching, baseball tournaments, boating, kayaking, fishing, hiking and exquisite beach combing.
One of our major events in the year is Salmon Days where we all come together to celebrate the harvest and the delicious salmon cooked over an open pit fire by our knowledgeable elders. The twin dreams of freedom and cooperation still survive today in Sointula. Descendents of the original pioneers and newer arrivals continue to be inspired by them.
We strive to work together to keep our community thriving, to care for our children and elders and to live in harmony with each other. For a taste of Utopia, you can wander down the streets of Sointula. Look for the Heritage Signs on the buildings to connect the past with the present. You are most welcome to join us for a taste of modern day utopia.
For further exploration:
Information for this article courtesy of Sointula Resource Center