Radical Immigrants and the
Workers' Sports Federation of
In Michael Ondaatje's novel about the construction of public works in depression-ravaged Toronto, In the Skin of a Lion, the protagonist remembers a night when as a young farm boy in eastern Ontario he had been drawn out into the cold by
lightning within the trees by the river.... The ice shone with light. It seemed for a moment that he had stumbled on a coven, or one of those strange druidic rituals.... But even to the boy, deep in the woods after midnight, this was obviously benign. Something joyous. A gift. There were about ten men skating, part of a game. One chased the others and as soon as someone was touched he became the chaser. Each man held in one hand a sheaf of cattails and the tops of these were on fire. This is what lit the ice and had blinked through the trees.
They raced, swerved, fell and rolled on the ice to avoid each other but never let go of the rushes. When they collided sparks fell onto the ice and onto their dark clothes.
It was not just the pleasure of skating. They could have done that during the day. This was against the night. The hard ice was so certain, they could leap into the air and crash down and it would hold them. Their lanterns replaced with new rushes which let them go further past boundaries, speed! romance!
To the boy growing into his twelfth year, having lived all his life on that farm where day was work and night was rest, nothing would be the same.
Years later, while working and living with immigrants, he realized that the magical, midnight skaters of his childhood had been Finns. 1
Though a work of fiction, Ondaatje's sketch of the athletic exuberance of Finnish-Canadian workers is based on interviews and archival photos. He could well have been describing their real-life passion for the out-of-doors, their seemingly endless energy, and their ability to transform almost any setting into an arena of athletic drama. The haunting imagery of the bewitching hour is appropriate too, not only because as working men (and women)