"Police Beat Them Up Just to Keep Warm": A Finnish-Canadian Communist Comments on Environmental Depredation and Capitalist Exploitation in Early 20th-Century British Columbia

By Wilson, J. Donald | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

"Police Beat Them Up Just to Keep Warm": A Finnish-Canadian Communist Comments on Environmental Depredation and Capitalist Exploitation in Early 20th-Century British Columbia


Wilson, J. Donald, Labour/Le Travail


TWO DECADES AGO two excellent accounts of early 20th century radicalism in Canada appeared one after the other: A. Ross McCormack's Reformers, Rebels, and Revolutionaries: The Western Canadian Radical Movement, 1899-1919 (Toronto, 1977) and David J. Bercuson's Fools and Wise Men: The Rise and Fall of the One Big Union (Toronto, 1978). Both books demonstrated, among other things, that the presence of immigrants from the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe was the main reason for the high degree of militancy and radicalism to be found in Western Canada before 1920. They pointed to the need to understand that these immigrants, whether from the United Kingdom or from the continent, often brought with them their trade union and socialist experiences. In many cases they did not seek to apply this knowledge until they became disenchanted with economic life here with its low wages, long hours, industrial "speed ups," lack of safety in the mines and forests, strike-breaking scabs and militia. Both books also served to underline the fact that Canadian radicalism and socialism became in the 20th century integral parts of Canada's political culture, thus challenging the established mainstream liberal and conservative viewpoints of the day.

This latter point is set forth in greater detail in another book of the same era, Norman Penner's The Canadian Left: A Critical Analysis (Toronto, 1977). Penner is at pains to establish that the role played by radicalism and socialism in this country's political culture ought to be considered more seriously by historians. Likewise, he emphasizes the role played by immigrants of non-British origin, side by side with the Anglo-Celtic majority. Non-Anglo-Celtic immigrants were indeed very prominent in the ranks of the Socialist Party of Canada, the Social Democratic Party of Canada, and the Communist Party of Canada. To take as an example the last named party, for the year 1928, out of a CPC party membership of 4,400, fully 2,640 (or 60 per cent) were Finns, 500 were Ukrainians, 200 were Jews, while the remainder were Anglo-Celtic and other nationalities.(1) Looking at the Social Democratic Party of Canada for 1914, Finns made up 55 per cent of its membership and had 64 locals across Canada with 3,047 registered members.(2) However, the leadership in all three parties was solidly Anglo-Celtic, and these leaders - whether Victor Midgley, W.A. Pritchard, R.B. Russell, or Tim Buck - naturally tended to steal the limelight from the rank-and-file. Consequently, not much has been written about the majority of each party, or about their views, an example of which is presented in the following documents.

A.B. Makela, who spent almost half his life in Canada living mostly at Sointula on Malcolm Island on Canada's west coast 300 kilometres north of Vancouver, was a Finnish Marxist and newspaper editor. Makela can be numbered among the 12,621 Finns who came to Canada in the first decade of the 20th century.(3) Most of these Finns were farmers or farm labourers looking to improve their economic lot and some were artisans. They came primarily from Finland's western and northern provinces. As with many Scandinavian immigrants to Canada, some had originally emigrated to the United States and for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the prospect of good, cheap land or jobs in railway construction, decided to move northward. Others came directly from Finland as part of that vast trans-Atlantic traffic in human cargo at the turn of the century. Editor of the Helsinki working-class newspaper Tyomies (The Worker), Makela came in 1901 at the request of his close friend Matti Kurikka, who the previous year had established a utopian socialist settlement at Sointula.(4)

Born on 12 July 1863 in southwestern Finland near Turku, Augusti Bernhard Makela had established a reputation for himself as a radical and supporter of working-class causes before leaving Finland to join Kurikka in Canada. …

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