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December 17, 2004

Remembering the Cameron Finns

There are many fascinating histories in this vast multicultural nation of ours.  One interesting story in the Community Voices area is the Finnish influx into Cameron Township east of Mattawa beginning in the mid 1910’s and lasting several decades.  I wrote about Cameron Township in an article in April 2003 and briefly mentioned the Finnish influence.  I recently received an interesting letter from Toronto from 88 year old Suoma Luoma, the first of many Finnish children born in Cameron Township.  Her parents were Sanna and Herman (Keltamaki) Hill.  They came to Cameron with five children and had 4 more there.  Suoma is the only remaining child but she has 4 children and there are some 20 nieces and nephews and numerous grandchildren from her family. 

Cameron Township Finlanders celebrating May Day in front of their hall in 1932.


Suoma sent me some photographs and a translation of a section of the book Canadian Finnish History.  The section was written by Mirjam Sandberg a former Cameron resident.  The article tells about their early struggles and successes and lists the many families that lived there.  In a conversation with Suoma she directed me to Taipio “Tup” Saari in North Bay who has a strong interest in Cameron Finnish history, grew up there and still has property there. 

I met with Tup and his wife Eunice who is chair of the Near North District School Board and Eunice’s brother Bob Hodgson who is married to Tup’s sister Terry.  They had many photos, papers and stories and provided me with an interesting book on Finnish history.  Space does not allow for details of Finnish Canadian history but for a relatively small group of about 100,000 today they have recorded their history well and have had a significant impact on Canadian society.  There is a lot of information on the internet and a couple of good books in the North Bay library. 

Finnish immigrants began coming to North America in the 1870’s because of political and religious persecution and the opportunity to work and have land.  The north end of Cameron Township on the Ottawa River had, beside the river, the old riverside Ottawa-Mattawa colonization road and the Canadian Pacific Railway.  The old road had stopping places for travelers and the well known village and sawmill at Klock were there was work, a store, a church, post office, etc.  The main draw was the free land and the opportunity to farm, hunt, trap and find work or make work!  At one time the Cameron map showed some 50+ hundred acre lots with Finnish names. 

Finnish skiers gathered for a days run.


During the Depression the building of the Trans Canada highway and the new traffic, especially visiting the Quints, provided work and opened another artery in the township. 

The Cameron Finns had an active social and cultural life as did other Finns in large enclaves in Sudbury, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto.  There were many building bees and shared enterprises like saw mills, threshing machines, etc.  The Cameron history book shows photos of musical groups, sports teams, and women’s groups with active Finnish participants. 

Along with the cooperation there was always a strong social consciousness in the Finnish population that created conflicts.  Many Finns had strong socialist views and were early unionists.  Others were conservative and religious.  The early Finnish Hall in Cameron burned in 1934 and was replaced by 2 halls that opened on the same day 2 years later.  The Trans Canada Hall on the Trans Canada highway became the centre of much community activity for everyone in the Township.  There are several references to Finns in my book The Fossmill Story where they built a large section of the company’s logging railroad and had their own camp and sauna.  As pulp cutters in Sprucedale they fought for better wages and working conditions from the Standard Chemical Company and won improved wages and workers compensation.  Finnish soldiers were somewhat restricted during WWII and only 1500 of 5000 who joined got overseas.  Several Cameron Finns enlisted and Larry Toivonen was killed in action. 

Mr. & Mrs. Herman Hill visiting their neighbours the Wiitalas in the early days in Cameron Township.

There were several Finnish organizations across Canada with newspapers and programmes reflecting differing points of view.  Jules Paivio the son of a well known poet, author and newspaper man from Sudbury was one of a group of 180 Finns who went to Spain to fight fascism (1936-39) in spite of Canadian laws against volunteering.  He became a leader in the group whose courage and contribution were ignored for years until recently.  Jules married Suoma’s sister Adele and they lived in Cameron for years.  Jules became an architect and designed the Mattawa Museum and he and his wife were active on the Museum Board.  As Curator of the Museum in the late 1980’s I knew Jules and his wife and I was pleased to see him again this summer at the 20th anniversary celebrations at the Museum. 

There is little evidence of the Finnish presence left in Cameron today as they moved on to other opportunities.  There are, however, a lot of good memories and a lot of respect for that era both by the Finns and those who knew them in Cameron.  It is hoped that some kind of permanent written and photographic record of this stay can be created for inclusion in the Museum for people to share.

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