Finnish food prepared with care links Thunder Bay to its history

The Finnish Labour Temple with the Hoito restaurant in the basement is shown in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Saturday, March 23, 2019. For more than a century the sensational smell of pancakes has wafted out of a large brick building connecting a northwestern Ontario city with its Finnish roots. Hoito restaurant has been serving homestyle Finnish food like the popular crepe-like pancakes out of the basement of the Finnish Labour Temple in Thunder Bay since 1918. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kelly Malone

THUNDER BAY, Ont. - For more than a century the sensational smell of pancakes has wafted out of a large brick building connecting a northwestern Ontario city with its Finnish roots.

Hoito restaurant has been serving homestyle Finnish food including its popular crepe-like pancakes out of the basement of the Finnish Labour Temple in Thunder Bay since 1918.

During a weekend in March, almost every table was full of locals, tourists and even a meeting of a book club. The chatter is in a multitude of languages.

"Everybody knows it. It's one of the things that you do in Thunder Bay," said Eija Niivila, the restaurant's longtime bookkeeper.

"Hoito" is the Finnish word for "care" and it's clear that care has been put into each dish placed in front of hungry customers. But, it's not just about the food in this busy basement.

Along the walls of the dining room, black and white photos show how the local workers who were the foundation of the restaurant also played an important role in Canada's labour movement — much of it considered quite radical.

In the late 1800s a need for workers in the logging and mining industries drew hundreds of people from Finland to the shores of Lake Superior.

Michel Beaulieu, chair of the department of history at Lakehead University, said most were unskilled labourers so by the beginning of the next century they began organizing to demand for better workers' rights.

In 1908 the construction of the iconic labour temple on Bay Street began and it was opened with a three-day long event two years later.

Multiple unions and political parties — from the Social Democratic Party to the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party of Canada — had events and organized out of the building over the decades. The One Big Union National Convention was held at the labour temple the year after the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

Over the years the local Finnish community faced many times of strife. People had no jobs and very little to eat during the depression, there were clashes with the RCMP during labour strikes, and they faced larger opposition to some of their socialist ideas during times of war. Socialist organizations in Canada were declared illegal near the end of the First World War and the Finnish Labour Temple was forced to close for a time.

"There's a stigma that gets attached to this idea of a labour temple or a socialist hall. It is political, it is left-leaning," Beaulieu said. "But when you strip it all down, what a labour temple in fact is, is not very different from a temperance society or a church. Their activities were community oriented."

The two-storey building also had offices, a library and an auditorium for dances. It was the centre of Finnish culture in the area.

Finnish men who worked at nearby camps were struggling to find low-priced food that reminded them of home. They came up with the idea of opening a co-operative in the labour temple's basement. Fifty-nine people pooled money together to create the restaurant.

"They put some money together — $5 a person — and at that time it was a lot of money," Niivila said.

She was born in Finland and came to Thunder Bay in 1971. Her first job was at the restaurant. When Niivila started working, dishes like blood sausage and head cheese were still on the menu.

"I used to have to speak Finn because so many customers here, especially older fellows, did not speak English or refused to speak English if they knew that you spoke Finn," she said with a laugh.

Over the decades the restaurant opened its doors beyond just the local Finnish community. The menu boasts dishes such as the Finlandia burger, suolakala sandwich (salt-cured salmon on rye bread) and makkara (a Finnish sausage served with mashed potatoes.)

By far, Niivila said, the most popular item is the Finnish pancakes.

"There's no leavening in it so that's why it's so flat. It's just egg and sugar and milk and flour and a little bit of salt," she said. "It's a classic dish and you can eat it sweet with strawberries or you can put some eggs and bacon on it."

Hoito is the oldest co-operatively owned and operated restaurant in Canada. The labour temple was designated a national historic site in 2011 and continues to serve as the cultural centre for the Finlandia Club of Port Arthur.

The entire neighbourhood has a taste of the old country, Niivila said. Nearby there's a Scandinavian delicatessen, Finnish bookstore and a giftshop named Finnport. Many of the buildings and their signs are painted blue and white and it's not uncommon to find saunas in the basements of houses.

"It's like a second home," Niivila said.

------

If You Go...

- If you go flights to Thunder Bay are about two hours from Toronto or 90 minutes from Winnipeg.

- The Tapiola ski trails in Thunder Bay gets its name from one of the most significant works of Finnish literature, "Kalevala," which describes the enchanted realm of Tapio. It is operated by the Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay and boasts 3.5 kilometres of maintained tracks and a concession for snacks is open during weekends in the winter.

-Thunder Bay also offers many non-Finnish attractions. The area has been an important spot throughout history for the Anishinabeg of Northern Ontario and museums, galleries, outdoor sculptures and local artisans showcase the culture. The Fort William Historical Park shows what life was like in 1816 during the fur trade. There are also hundreds of parks and conservation areas in and around the city for activities like hiking, rock climbing and kayaking.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.