On Monday the Yukon Film Society’s Available Light Cinema series presents a little-known but fascinating story in the history of Canadian Labour, with its showing of Under The Red Star.
Employing archival footage and reenactments in a seamless fashion, the film tells of the historic Finnish Labour Temple, built in 1910 in Port Arthur, Ontario, now Thunder Bay, on the shores of Lake Superior.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Finnish immigration to North America reached approximately 300,000, and much of it was centred in the Lakehead, with Finns playing a significant role in the area’s social, cultural, and economic life.
Lumber barons and mining magnates of the era envisioned the twin towns of Port Arthur and Fort William developing into the Chicago of the North, and its booming economy was largely driven by the Finnish immigrants, who served as a cheap labour source for the bustling pulp mills and mines.
Lured to Canada by government promises of homestead land, the men were employed as woodcutters, lumberjacks and underground miners, while the women often worked as domestic servants and cooks in the mining and bush camps.
Theirs was a hard lot; many of the families were impoverished, with their caregivers and even their children working long hours for pitiful wages.
When the labour temple, largely built by volunteer labour in just four months, was first opened, it quickly became the focal point for the Finnish community’s cultural and political aspirations. Influenced by socialist philosophy imported from their native Finland, workers began to demand an end to child labour and the inauguration of an eight-hour working day.
The Lakehead area became a hub for political activism, and the new labour hall played host to the National Convention of the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress in 1910. A year later, the Social Democratic Party of Canada was founded in the very same hall.
Finnish-language newspapers housed in the new labour temple spread the word of the growing movement, and there soon arose a cadre of local organizers.
Fanning out to the mining camps and the woods to speak to workers in their own language, they urged them to form unions and fight for a better life.
Under The Red Star highlights the life of one of these organizers, a brave and outspoken woman named Sanna Kannasto, played by Elena Leeve, a prominent actress in her native Finland. Kannasto’s story is a remarkable one.
Well-educated and analytical, she spoke all over the continent to groups of workers, lecturing to them on radicalization and the theory of proletarian revolution.
Working for three dollars a day as a paid agitator, she spent long hours travelling all over Canada.
The film dramatizes her strained marriage, as well as the series of arrests and imprisonments that made her name legendary in labour organizing circles. In response to her husband’s demands that she spend more time with their child, while he philanders, she intones:
“Marriage, even in the best cases, places people in bondage. You can tell J.V. Kannasto’s new bitch that I am never going to tie myself to a man. I am married to revolution.”
The authorities followed her closely, employing spies at her meetings and disrupting her work at every opportunity.
But still she persevered, embodying what a local right-wing newspaper denounced as “the three most common Finnish traits — socialism, atheism and free love.”
Director Kelly Saxberg’s future film projects include building on the theme of labour struggles with the Finns in Ontario.
“I’m just trying to organize footage for a film called Pulp Friction,” she says. “It’s about forestry industry communities in northern Ontario, Finland, and in Uruguay. In Finland and northern Ontario especially, the pulp mills have been closing, and meanwhile in South America they’ve been opening massive pulp mills, where they have eucalyptus trees that are fully grown in eight years.”
Under The Red Star plays at 6 p.m. Monday, December 9 at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse. It will be followed by David Byrne’s film True Stories at 8 p.m.