History of Finland-Canada Relations


Although Finland did not gain its independence until December 6, 1917, the early contacts between Finland and Canada occurred when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Finland-Sweden (1200-1809) and when it was an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia (1809-1917). Most notable, and perhaps the first contact, was made by Pehr Calm, an explorer, scientists, and botanist who explored New France in 1749 and the Niagara Falls region in 1750 carefully documenting his discoveries. A less welcome contact occurred in 1838 when Nils Gustaf von Schoultz landed near Prescott, Ontario as the head of a 190-man American invasion force aiming to “liberate” Upper Canada. Von Schoultz was captured and executed.

Finnish immigrants arrived in the 1870s to work on the canal and railroad construction sites and later in the mines and lumber camps. By the 1890s Finnish communities were established in British Columbia, the prairie provinces, and Ontario where the pioneers cleared homesteads, fished, trapped, and hunted. Coming from a country of similar geography and climate Finns were well equipped to tame the Canadian wilderness. Finnish women were in high demand as maids, boarding house keepers, and lumber camp cooks.

In the late 1890s the Canadian government, hungry for new settlers, engaged in active recruitment of Finnish immigrants by distributing literature in Finland, and by sponsoring a delegation of highly respected Finns on a tour across Canada to select large tracts of land where Finns, disgruntled by the repressive Russification policies in Finland, could move en masse. While not much came of this planned mass emigration, Finns continued to settle near already established Finnish communities.

In 1901, the province of British Columbia gave Malcolm Island to a group of Vancouver Island coal miners who established there a short-lived utopian socialist community called Sointula. During WWI many Finnish immigrants exhibited their loyalty to Canada by volunteering to serve in the Canadian armed forces, mainly in the 94th Battalion and in the 223rd Scandinavian Battalion. After WWI, the Allied nations, including Great Britain, and effectively its Dominions, recognized Finland’s independence in the Council of Foreign Ministers in Paris on the 3rd of May, 1919.


By the 1920s, Canada’s Finnish immigrant communities were well structured with networks of newspapers, mutual-aid and temperance societies, congregations, social and sports clubs, and co-operatives. Universally literate Finns were active participants in political debate and strong supporters of the Canadian union and suffrage movements. In 1921, according to Census Canada, there were 21,494 people of Finnish origin living in Canada.

Newly independent Finland recognized the importance of good relations with Canada and its growing Finnish immigrant population. On January 23, 1923, Akseli Rauanheimo (1923-1932) was appointed Finnish Consul in Canada and a Finnish Consulate was opened in Montreal. This coincided with the heaviest period of Finnish immigration to Canada, now including also the province of Quebec. After the United States passed restrictive immigration legislation in 1922, the annual numbers of Finnish immigrants to Canada soared. Between 1923-1930 nearly 35,000 Finnish immigrants landed in Canada. Ably assisted by his wife Betty Järnefelt-Rauanheimo, Consul Rauanheimo coped with the steady stream of immigrants who sought assistance. In 1925, the office was upgraded to a Consulate General and by the end of the decade it had obtained a vice-consul and administrative staff.

Rauanheimo was an exceptional man, affectionately called the “shepherd” of the Finnish immigrants. He successfully lobbied Canadian private companies, particularly the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and the Seamen’s Mission in Finland for funds to establish a Finnish Immigrant Home and a Seamen’s Mission in Montreal. In April 1927, Rev. F. Pennanen arrived from Finland to take on the duties of pastor in the Seamen’s Mission. In September 1927, the Finnish Immigrant Home accepted its first registered guests. At its busiest period the 26-room home squeezed 5-6 beds per room allowing thousands of immigrants to find refuge in the temporary “home” that also served as a soup kitchen, employment office, and a place where newly arrived or itinerant immigrants could pick up their mail.

The establishment of two government supported ex-patriot organizations in Finland in 1927, signaled yet again the desire by Finland for active contact and cultural exchange with Finnish immigrants abroad. After a difficult start, The Finland Society took over the mission of bridge building between Canada and Finland by organizing cultural tours, providing reliable and positive information about Finland, and by welcoming ex-patriots back to their homeland. For those emigrating from Finland to Canada, Rauanheimo’s informative book, Kanadan-Kirja (The Canada Book) (WSOY, 1930) was an invaluable guide. Betty Järnefelt-Rauanheimo published a book of short stories, Vierailla Veräjillä (At Strange Gates) (WSOY, 1928). The stories portrayed real immigrant experiences and depicted the emotional cost of immigration.

Canada introduced restrictive immigration policies in 1931 and the immigration flow reversed as many unemployed Finns returned to their homeland. The depression had struck a heavy blow to the Finnish immigrant communities and Rauanheimo empathized with the hungry and the sick. He kept an active correspondence with the Canadian government urging it to take responsibility for the sick, injured, and hungry. He personally helped many immigrants in distress and was known to give even his own coat to a returning immigrant. After nine years of dedicated service in Canada, Consul-General Rauanheimo died. Despite the depression, immigrants pooled their resources to erect a gravestone with the epitaph: “Akseli Rauanheimo - Father of the Immigrants”.

Many of the left-wing Finns who remained in Canada participated in demonstrations, hunger marches, and strikes. They supported socialist movements, particularly the Finnish Organization of Canada (FOC) and its newspaper Vapaus. Their activities were monitored and censored by the RCMP. Many Finnish Canadians, including editors, union leaders, and ordinary poverty-stricken individuals were deported. The FOC was banned in 1940, its property confiscated and its halls closed until 1943 when the ban was finally rescinded.

Rauanheimo, was replaced by Aaro Jalkanen (1932-1939), who reported that in 1932 about 10,000 people visited the Consulate to take care of passport matters alone. The same year lack of funds forced the immigrant home to close its doors. Jalkanen concluded that one of his important missions in Canada was to support the patriotic and conservative activity of the Finnish Civil War veterans organizations, the Loyal Finns in Canada, and the Finnish Lutheran congregations as alternatives to the strong socialist movement.

Jalkanen gave numerous patriotic speeches and wrote the lyrics to the patriotic movement’s theme song, Isänmaan ääni (Voice of the Fatherland). The new conservative organizations established strong links with the Finland-Society. These networks were used to publicize the planned Helsinki Olympic games in 1940. Notable cultural exchanges included the Finlandia Male Chorus Tour, and Finnish Exhibitions in Toronto and Vancouver. Politicians and individual artists also toured Canada. The impact of this combined effort was a much greater awareness of Finland, its culture, sports, and politics.


The enthusiastic planning for the Olympics came to a sudden halt when the Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939. Immediately the war became headline news and Canadian public opinion was strongly in support of “gallant Finland.” On December 14, 1939 the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations which declared its condemnation of the actions of the USSR against the Republic of Finland. This declaration was followed by British and Allied promises for military help.

About 250 Finnish immigrants left Canada to defend Finland and joined the “American Legion.” Initially the Canadian Foreign Enlistment Act was a hindrance for Canadian citizens who also wished to volunteer in this battle between “David and Goliath.” For the next three and a half months, the Consulate General in Montreal, now headed by K.F. Altio (1939-1941), and the seven honorary consulates that had been established across Canada, lived through tumultuous times organizing passports and documents for the Finnish Canadian volunteers, seeking clarifications from the Canadian government of its position vis-a-vis Canadian citizens who wished to fight in Finland.

The consulates transferred goods and funds collected in Canada by the many Finland Aid organizations and the newly established Canadian Relief Fund chaired by the Senate Leader of the Conservative Party and former Prime Minister of Canada, Arthur Meighen. Canada announced on March 1, 1940 that its citizens were free to enlist for service in the Finnish armed forces. This lead to the creation of a historically unique “Finland’s Little Army” in Canada. Colonel Hunter, MPP of Ontario, was offered the command of Canadian and British forces in Finland.

On March 9, 1940, Senator Meighan dispatched a telegram to the President of Finland, Kyösti Kallio, that “Ontario friends sending 2000 more men immediately to help fight in Finland.” Finland’s little army was disbanded before setting out as armistice was declared just four days later on March 13, 1940. Finland-Aid activity, however, continued for another year.

The relations between Finland and Canada cooled during the spring and summer of 1941 as Finnish co-operation with Germany, Canada’s enemy, increased. A few days after Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22,1941, Finns became Germany’s co-belligerents fighting the Soviet Union. The British Delegation in Helsinki, which looked after Canadian interests in Finland, was closed on August 1, 1941. A week later, Finnish consulates in Canada were ordered closed and Consul General K. Kuusamo (1941) returned to Finland. On August 11, 1941, the Swedish Consulate General was appointed to protect Finnish interests in Canada.

The Soviet Union pressured England to declare war against Finland. England in turn pressured the Commonwealth to join in the declaration of war. At first, Canada was reluctant to declare war against Finland. Finally, on December 6, 1941 (Finland’s Independence Day) England declared war on Finland and Canada followed suit a day later. Two hours before the news of Pearl Harbor reached Ottawa, Finnish immigrants were issued exemption certificates that protected them from harsh treatment as enemy aliens in Canada.

Unlike the Japanese, Italian, and German immigrants, the Finnish citizens in Canada were only required to be fingerprinted by the RCMP, some restrictions applied to their mobility and ability to own firearms, mail service and money transactions stopped, and some property was confiscated and held by the Custodian of Enemy Property. During the remainder of the war Finnish Canadians gave their full support to the Canadian war effort by enlisting in the Canadian armed forces, working in the war industries, and raising funds.

Germany’s surrender in May 1945 began the normalization of Finnish Canadian relations. The requirement for Finns to be registered in Canada was removed in September 1945 and in December small scale Finland aid shipments and personal mail service to Finland resumed. The Paris Peace Treaty was ratified by the Parliament of Canada on September 19, 1947 and Finland’s enemy status was rescinded.

Diplomatic relations were resumed on November 21, 1947 and on December 1, 1947 Finland named Urho Toivola (1948-1952) to head the newly opened Finnish Legation in Ottawa. In 1952, this post was taken over by Hans Martola (1952-1954) who was followed by Sigurd von Numers (1954-1959). In March 1948, the Canadian Custodian of Enemy property released all confiscated property belonging to citizens of Finland. A year later the Ambassador of Canada in Stockholm, Sweden, Thomas Archibald “Tommy” Stone, was appointed also to look after Canadian interests in Finland.

The post-war period witnessed an immigration boom to Canada from Finland and the pre-war good relations between the countries resumed. Travel increased and in the beginning of 1959 visa requirements were removed. In 1961, Census Canada reported 59,436 people of Finnish origin living in Canada. In 1960, the Finnish Legation in Ottawa was transformed to an Embassy and Artturi Lehtinen (1959-1964) was appointed Ambassador. A year later Canada established an Embassy in Helsinki, headed by Ambassador John Harrison Cleveland.

Since then, contacts between the two countries have blossomed in joint UN missions abroad, athletic, artistic, scientific or student exchanges, increased trade, formal cultural, economic, social, and political agreements.

Article by Varpu Lindström (1948-2012), Professor of History and Women Studies at York University, Toronto