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"New Canadian Immigrants" Circa 1916...Finnish Settlers in Northern Ontario

Updated on March 31, 2017

Canada a Land of Opportunity and Immigrants

Immigration from another country is always tough on new immigrants.

While it is a time of great hope, there are many obstacles on the path to make a new country home. Each wave of immigrants have faced their own challenges to make Canada their home!

This is the story of some of my people as they came to a new land.

Irish, German, Italian and Ukrainian Immigrants have similar stories.

In this modern day immigrants sometimes feel undue hardship. Take heart, times have improved! This isn't to say there are no challenges, but technology has improved many aspects of creating a new life.

This is an account of how the grandparents and great grandparents of some modern day Canadians made their way to the land of opportunity. Their life did not include modern conveniences. When they left their homeland, it was often forever. Letters were the only contact with loved ones at home.

I do remember that telephones were a luxury when I was quite young. In my grandparents time there was not even that opportunity for keeping touch with loved ones. Only letters. How sad it must have been. My father never saw his father again, except in photographs.

There are other historical perspectives written by more scholarly minds than mine, but this will do quite well, since the sources are primarily my late stepmother, my aunt and elders who lived part of this life. The stories I heard as I grew up in the predominantly Finnish Canadian community which was a part of an original settlement in Northern Ontarioare part of my history because as a young child, I was also an immigrant.

This is a brief account of the immigrant life since 1916 in one rural area of Ontario, where one the first waves of Finnish immigrants settled in the distant past.

The account is adapted from the writing of my late stepmother with some editing by me. I recently found a handwritten account tucked into a volume of poems I had given her years ago. It is as if she wanted me to publish it…so here it is…part of her life and times.

Rafters from a pioneer home...note how different from modern homes!

Materials were not bought at Home Depot, Lowes or Rona!
Materials were not bought at Home Depot, Lowes or Rona! | Source

Immigration then...

The first immigration to Northern Ontario was in 1916. My stepmother’s parents arrived from Finland shortly after, in 1918. They began life in the town of Creighton Mine, which no longer exists!

My stepmother’s father was employed at the INCO mine there. Conditions were grim and dangerous for the men that worked those first mines. They were truly pioneers. There was no health plan or compensation for illness. The men took their chances and many died as a result of their working conditions.He was one of them. My stepmother was a Canadian, she was the first of her family to be born in Canada. Her father died of black lung disease from the mines when she was still a toddler. Her mother never remarried and raised 5 children on her own.

The Canadian government had allotted homesteads to immigrant families as an incentive to immigrate. The deal was a deed to a certain amount of acreage in exchange, if the families cleared a certain amount of land and began farming. The area where my mother’s parents settled became a Finnish settlement with only two families from England in the mix. Her widowed mother managed to live off the land until the children were grown. I own a small piece of that original land. It has now reverted back to nature. It is not much of an agricultural treasure...heavy clay soil and a huge beaver pond...but a real lovely nature retreat.

It seems, the area reminded the immigrants of their homeland. However, much of the good agricultural land was already taken, so farming was not an easy option;but the lure of their own land was enough.

Never mind, the Finnish people were used to hardship and this was no free giveaway. Hard work was required to to survive the harsh winter (families came over with very little reserves and received no further assistance from the government of the day). The area, though rich in timber, was difficult to grow crops in, but the settlers persevered. Families helped each other out, it was the only way to survive!

A New Life Begins...

The immigrant people did not look at what they did not have, but focused on what they thought they had; prime timber, which they used to build their contracters in those days! The families banded together and used whatever they could to create those first homes.

The cleared land grew enough vegetable and grain crops to supply families with simple food year round. Children didn’t have the luxury of technology or computers, they had to work the land with their parents in order to have food (potatoes, turnips,carrots) and pick wild berries (strawberries and blueberries..that were preserved) to survive the winters. Meat was not store bought. They raised their own, once they could afford to buy the animals to grow or they fished and snared small, wild animals like rabbits. Perhaps today we would call that survival living!

The nearest convenience store or mall didn’t even exist! Life was simple but wholesome. Both my mother and her sister recounted, with affection, anecdotes of their childhood. Straw beds with a pile of children per bed. Children beginning work at a very young age to bring in money that was in very short supply in order to buy fabric to sew clothes and buy the basics such as shoes!

All the children went out to work before they were adults to add to the family resources. One of my uncles remained behind to help the grandmother farm until he married. My stepmother married at the age of 17 and found work as a hairdresser and later as a sales woman until she finally became a stay at home mother in her thirties!

Every Finnish family had to build their own sauna and Saturday “sauna night” was the luxury of the week!

The community had a wholesome friendliness, people were always ready to help one another.

Soon the first roads were built. Horse and buggy were the mode of transportation. When cars were introduced there was a sense of awe and wonder at this modern conveyance!

The children of the settlers first went to school at the Finnish hall…followed by a two room school that was completed in 1926. Four different grades were taught in each of those two rooms. Each student walked two or three miles to school and back each day; skiing in the winter. Initially, there was no indoor plumbing, no electrical lighting and no proper heating in winter…but it was a start.

That school still stands in the community, though it has long become a community center and children are transported to a neighboring community school with all the modern conveniences. They are picked up from their own doorsteps by bus.

The old Finnish hall was a gathering place and countless four act plays and musicals were enacted by the community’s very own theatrical group. As well, there was a thriving athletic community with the stars of the day taking the spotlight for their stellar abilities in track and field, gymnastics as well as skiing.

My aunt wrote in one her own accounts, that only one family member could go to an event at one time because there was only one set of felt boots shared by the whole family! Mom and her sister always looked back on those days with nostalgia... which is difficult to fathom in our age of conveniences we take for granted.

The Depression was a trying time for all. Almost all the families took in at least one single man since there were no jobs and the men would work for food since the families had not much else to offer and the extra help was appreciated since the wages were low (zero).

The second world war which broke out in 1939 and almost all the men of age enlisted or were asked to serve. Some never returned. V-day was a day of great joy for the families as war finally ended and families were reunited and life returned to normal.


By the 1950’s families had adapted, some of the older generation had passed away and electricity was the new luxury for the small community. This meant lights and the new conveniences of electric washing machines and the best convenience of all…fridges to keep food cold!

The older generation wondered at the laziness of the younger women getting soft watching their wash done by machine instead of the old washboard!

In one incident of a power outage...the lights went out as they are still apt to do during storms, but the locals who were new to electricity decided the wiring had failed. In another incident one hapless man took his new iron apart until by some fluke they discovered the iron would not work because a fuse was burned out in the electrical panel. It was a learning curve!

As if that wasn’t enough technology to deal with, the telephone was introduced to the community. Now that was considered a downright miracle. The first service was nine families to a rural line…can you just imagine all the listening that was done to any conversation! Yes, they did listen in on each other...I have heard the stories...ha,ha,ha. The original wiretap.

The immigrants have long since become Canadian citizens and their children are Canadian by birth. Their grandchildren no longer even understand their heritage language or hardships their great grandparents endured of long ago...

They forget their great grandparents were once new immigrants with a few suitcases of old clothes to their names; their eyes filled with hope of a better life! There were hardships to endure, but most of them did eventually find the better life! Their children and great grandchildren have come to love Canada as their home, as will the children of the many new immigrants coming to Canada today!

Welcome! You are not the first. You too, will be welcoming immigrants from other places one day, eyes full of hope for a better life!


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  • profile image


    8 years ago beautiful and peaceful the simple life was.if only everybody would be as contented as they were,life wouldn't be as complicated as it is now.

  • Scribenet profile imageAUTHOR

    Maggie Griess 

    8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    glowingrocks, thank you. This was an easy story to write, since I had listened to versions of this many times and I had my late step-mom's notes to refresh my memory. Her family were great story tellers and I was always an eager listener!

  • glowingrocks profile image


    8 years ago from New York

    Nice story that one.Thanks for sharing with us.

  • kallini2010 profile image


    8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    Thank you, Scribenet! You are right, it is interesting to look back now, I tried to read my letters to my parents from 1998 and I stopped on the first one. It is too much to say in one article.

    The way my hub progresses is very much related to today and now. It is more dedicated to the city and my current life.

    I will try to write my immigration story some other time. Maybe it is too painful, I did not even realize it was still a open wound. Maybe just a scar.

    Thank you for encouragement,

    P.S. Funny thing, I never was in awe of Russian winters, but when we came to discover Canadian (Toronto) weather I began to miss our winters. I did not enjoy rainy Christmases, LOL.

  • Scribenet profile imageAUTHOR

    Maggie Griess 

    8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Kallini...Happy 14th Canadian Anniversary today!

    Maybe you can tell us about what it felt like as you first set foot in your "new' country; what you left behind and your hopes and dreams. As you say there are no expiry dates on dreams!

    I am looking forward to "your" experience, what you thought of Canada and what you were told before you immigrated. Friends of mine have just had a brother and his family immigrate from the Phillipines. Their first reaction? It is way colder than they ever imagined... and money just doesn't go very far! Yeh...I second that opinion!

    I haven't seen that much of Canada either, parts of Manitoba, a lot of Ontario and bits of lots to discover still! Cheers!

  • kallini2010 profile image


    8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    Thank you, Scribenet, thank you, for your kind words and a hug. That is a first on HubPages, for sure, or shall I say HugPages? LOL

    I am sitting here, staring at a screen, trying to write a hub dedicated to my landing anniversary and the city of Toronto. Did you know it was nicknamed "El Toro"?

    Well, I will see what I can do. But you are right, my years in Canada made me who I am now. Every experience we have has a tremendous power of shaping us and immigration is one of a kind. It is truly life-changing.

    Funny enough, that I have to read your hub today and you are from Finland. Our route was Moscow - Helsinki - London - Toronto. So we left Moscow on March 2 on a train, spent March 3 (14 years ago to the day) in Helsinki and landed in Toronto on March 4, 2011.

    I did not travel all that much, neither the world, nor Canada. I have been to Ottawa once (for a day only) and I spent four months in Calgary. But I am dreaming...

    You know what they say? Dreams have no expiration date. Indeed. What does any immigrant's journey begin with?

    A dream.

  • Scribenet profile imageAUTHOR

    Maggie Griess 

    8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    b. Malin It is difficult to imagine how life was in the early 1900' much has changed! Being a Baby Boomer, even the changes in my life from childhood are something to behold!

    I loved the stories of the elders as I grew up and this story was one I feel priviledged to relate, since my stepmother was a Canadian by birth and never felt anything but Canadian, but her heritage had an immigrant story in it, as do most Canadians!

    Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them! Cheers!

  • b. Malin profile image

    b. Malin 

    8 years ago

    What a wonderful Hub on the History of Canadian Immigrants...Those were hard times. you've made this information into a rich and informative read. Thanks for sharing

  • Scribenet profile imageAUTHOR

    Maggie Griess 

    8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Kallini, Your passion shines through your words and I appreciate very much that you are not indifferent! That is good!

    Your comments have enriched my Hub on the immigrant experience! This was a great addition of another perspective and nationality experience.

    I hope one day you will fell like you are a Canadian...fourteen years here means, you belong here!

    Your experience of the Second World War will always affect you, I am sure. It is not good to forget how awful war is, so perhaps you have a voice to remind people!

    I have seen the movie Blood Diamonds (I recommend it). It was one that stayed with me in my thoughts and really turned me off diamonds!

    I think you would have a lot of readers for your family's experiences!

    I feel like sending you a big Hug! Thank you as well for such great commentary!

  • kallini2010 profile image


    8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    Scribenet, I did not want to say that experiences of people here were less dramatic and traumatic, even though I may have sounded that way.

    The only reason it is hard to comment in an indifferent manner, is that pain of immigration is though not fresh, yet it always simmers under the surface. Canada is my home now, but the irony is that I don't belong anywhere anymore. I am not the same Russian as I was before (14 years ago), but I will never be a true Canadian.

    Another reason is that I never will be able to forget the Second World War. When I was growing up it was part of my education, culture, life. Such things are hard to forget. The younger generations are probably have forgotten, but I never will.

    I do feel pain so acutely. I, for some reason, remembered the film "Blood Diamond" - the reality people live in nowadays. It is hell on earth.

    But thank you again for writing about immigration. You made me think again. My ex used to laugh at me for my tendency to reevaluate things. Actually, in Russian it sounds more like "reassign new meanings to old experiences". Indeed, only in retrospection it is possible to see things clearer. To admire large objects we have to look at them from a distance.

    Maybe you are right, I should consider writing about my family experiences.

    Thank you again,

  • Scribenet profile imageAUTHOR

    Maggie Griess 

    8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Eiddwen, Thank you for your comments. It is nice to share experiences and I am glad you enjoyed your armchair travel back in time! Cheers!

    Genna, Ontario certainly is a cultural melting pot and there are so many different experiences people have had and have been through. Thanks for stopping by!

    Kallini..You should write a Hub on the experiences you write of! They are riveting. I am not, in the least, ignoring what other people have gone or will go through...take for instance people fleeing for their lives in Libya. They are literally being forced to leave.

    I do not know of the hardships my mother's family endured before they left their homeland; that is the backstory that is lost. I do know that my other side of the family endured two wars and the stories are not pretty. One grandfather was the next to be executed and was spared because the news came the war was over!

    I was born in Finland and immigrated as a child so I adapted because Canada is all I remember...however, my parents felt the pain!

    Thanks for sharing your story. You really should consider making it a Hub to do it justice!

    Blessings to you as well!

  • kallini2010 profile image


    8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

    Good hub, Scribenet. It was difficult to live in those times, period. Whether you were an immigrant or not. Don't forget that other nations went through their fair share of hardships, maybe for different reasons.

    Canadian men had to enlist to go to war? What about Poland that was taken over by Germans in a matter of a few days? My grandparents lived right at the Eastern border of the Soviet Union when Germans began bombing. My grandfather could not leave immediately as he was responsible for evacuating the military factory. One day he told me he was talking to workers, he left the shop and five minutes later, the shop went up in a cloud of smoke, the bomb went right in the center of it.

    My grandmother with two small children and NO luggage was running and she was on a train that she could not leave. Germans were taking some territory, then Russians were taking it back, then Germans again... One of my uncles being three or four years of age ran out on the field that was bombed at that moment. A soldier risking his own life ran after him and brought him back. Can you imagine living in those conditions? When your country is occupied, you have nowhere to live, nothing to eat...

    Immigration is not the only hardship there is. But for me, immigration is a first degree burn. You might say that modern immigrants still complain and not satisfied, but it is only because to know the pain of immigration, you have to experience it.

    I don't compare my life with the hardships of your family, I understand they are completely different. I would not have survived. I was not meant to.

    But psychological pain of immigration? Believe me, it is not a laughing matter. I know what that pain is. The first thing that happens to everybody is depression. Internet or no internet. All of a sudden, you are a fish out of water.

    And these days? Tomorrow, on March 4th, 2011, it will be exactly 14 years I am here in Toronto, Canada. I only went home once, the same year 1997 in December. I have not seen my friends for so long. My life?

    These days you need to speak the language well enough to work in a well-paying job and language barrier is the first thing to overcome. Most people never get to the same level of knowledge as their native tongues. Never.

    When I was in DeVry, one of our professors said that Toronto and Canada is a goldmine for people who are over-educated yet stuck in jobs where their education and potential is not used. You know these stories, if you are a doctor from a different country, it will take you 10 years to become a Canadian doctor. Pain, money...

    Nowadays, it is simply different. But so many people go through immigration, Canada is not the only country.

    I am grateful for what I have, but "my first degree burn"? It is still a burn.

    Thank you for writing on immigration, I think we (readers) should always remember our roots, our pain and our blessings,

    All the best,

  • Genna East profile image

    Genna East 

    8 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

    Thanks, scrib. My fahter's family is Canadian (Ontario), and I especially enjoyed this very informative and well-written hub.

  • Eiddwen profile image


    8 years ago from Wales

    Hi Scribenet,

    I enjoyed every word of this one and thanks for sharing.

    One of my favourite pastimes is armchair travelling, whether it's now or in days gone by so this one was a treat.

    Take care



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