With one of the highest populations of Finns outside of Finland, the city of Thunder Bay in northwestern Ontario has a restaurant that's been serving Finnish pancakes for nearly a century.
Photo by the author.
The lingering scent of Finnish pancakes greets me as I head downstairs into the Hoito—touted as one of Canada's first cooperative restaurants—located in the heart of the Bay and Algoma Finnish district in Thunder Bay, a city of 100,000 in northwestern Ontario.
"I'll bet that if you bring up the Hoito to anyone in Thunder Bay, you could play six degrees of the Hoito, as you're sure to hear a story about an ancestor who helped build, worked at and/or regularly ate at the Hoito," says Kathy Toivonen, co-author of A Century of Sisu: 100 years of Finnish Tradition, Culture and Food in the Thunder Bay Area and the president of the Thunder Bay Finnish-Canadian Historical Society. "If you made it ten degrees, you'd probably be able to include the whole world. When I waitressed there, I kept a log for travelers to sign. People from New Zealand, Germany, and even South Africa had been told by people in their own countries, 'If you go to Thunder Bay, you need to go to the Hoito.'"
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, over 136,000 Canadians identify their ethnic origin as Finnish. And more than 14,500 claim to be of Finnish descent in the Thunder Bay area. "Thunder Bay has the largest Finnish population outside the country of Finland," says the city's mayor Keith Hobbs.
The Hoito, which means "care" in Finnish, began serving hearty meals to bush workers and pensioners in 1918. The Finnish Labour Temple, today a National Historic Site, was completed in 1910 and served as the meeting place for newcomers, workers, and families. It is widely recognized as a symbol of the Finns' role during Canada's labour movement during the first half of the 20th century.
"The original political roots of the Finnish Labour Temple have grown to anchor a larger, more diverse Finnish Canadian Community," explains Toivonen. "As smaller halls closed and Finnish communities around the city were absorbed into townships, the Temple had become a stronghold for the culture. Even today, the stately building continues to inspire cultural identity for the Finnish Canadians and for all cultures in Thunder Bay."
Over the years, the Old Finn Hall, which was restored in 2010 to look more like the original Labour Temple, is an impressive original red brick building with a three-story tower, a glassed-in cupola, gabled roof, and of course the fitting stone work engraved with "LABOR OMNIA VINCIT, 1910," which in Latin means "Labour conquers all things." It has also housed newspaper offices (including Canadan Sanomat, Canada's Finnish language paper) a library, and an auditorium used for theatrical performances, sporting events, St. Urho's Day (the Finns' tongue-in-cheek response to St.Paddy's Day), weddings, fundraisers, and concerts.
Today, there is a smaller-than-usual smattering of people in the basement of the Finnish Labour Temple (a.k.a. Old Finn Hall or Finlandia Club) because it's a late afternoon in the middle of the week. Come on the weekend and it's an entirely different story: the lineup—old and young, regulars and tourists, hungover and churchgoing—snakes out of the restaurant, while dishes clank and clink constantly, and waitresses—some fluent in Finnish—are in a frenzy filling up coffee cups and taking orders.
Most of the clientele are eating some kind of Finnish dish, whether it's (beef soup), piirakka (rice patties), or pannukakku (crepe-like pancakes). Last year, the Hoito served about 95,000 people and more than 68,000 of those people ordered Finnish pancakes: thin, golden brown, and crispy on the edges. At the Hoito, you can hear murmurs of Finglish (rustic Finnish blended with English) and spot a few old timers drinking coffee at the communal tables.
These men remind me of my Finnish-speaking grandfather and my (grandmother), who immigrated to Canada in the 50s with my mother, settling just around the corner from the Finnish Labour Temple. Both of my grandparents worked hard: my grandfather was a bush worker and my grandmother was a camp cook. I wasn't much older than eight or nine the first time my brother and I went to the Hoito alone—my grandfather would give us money from his "secret" locked drawer whenever my step-mummu was away and send us to buy lunch before our sauna.
Recently, the Finnish Labour Temple ran into financial troubles due to renovation costs for the building the Hoito sits in. The Finlandia Association appealed to the community of Thunder Bay for financial support, and the community responded generously by raising $15,000 in a month. "I hope that future generations get to enjoy what past generations have enjoyed," says mayor Hobbs.
When asked what continues to make the Hoito appealing, the restaurant's manager Francis Gaudino says, "I think it's nostalgia—the community has embraced the Hoito. It's a communal place. There is always something colourful happening. And it's home cooking the way it was always done." Given the track record of their sisu (which is Finn for grit, determination, guts, and stubbornness), chances are the Hoito and Old Finn Hall aren't going anywhere anytime soon.