From Finland to Australia to Nanaimo to Sointula, Matti Kurrika had pursued his ‘ideal community,’ where people would live together in socialist harmony far from the dictates of the Russian Czar.
Kurrika was of a spiritual and philosophical bent, not skilled in practicalities, so his string of ideal communes tended to end in debt and in-fighting.
The move from Nanaimo to Sointula in early 1902 involved men desperate to leave underpaid and dangerous work in Lord Dunsmuir’s coal mines. Kurrika’s desperate attempts at fundraising on the backs of those same men by taking some of their meager wages meant that their relationship was rocky before they even got to Sointula.
Once there, debts and disagreements again took their toll, and after a devastating fire in the communal hall in 1904 that killed 11 people, Kurrika left the community for Vancouver to work for Finnish language newspapers in the region.
His good (and former) friend Austin Makela stayed behind in Sointula, while Kurrika continued his quest for a perfect socialist community.
Makela had a far steadier hand and the community stabilized and eventually thrived in a modest way.
They did not retain Kurrika’s strict socialist ideals and became more of a normal ‘materialist’ settlement in the fashion of the usual Canadian community.
During his time at Sointula, Kurrika developed his ideas about ‘free love,’ which were somewhere between the stringent ideas of the day and what the hippies would later refer to by the same name.
He wanted women to be fully equal to men and not tied to one father for their children.
At some point, his thinking turned around – perhaps due to the less than warm reception for his ideas – and he decided that his ideal would be better met by a community that was all men.
It was at this point in his personal journey that he heard of a shingle bolt cutting contract at Webster’s Corners and moved his group of single men there.
They formed an organization called Sammon Takojat (Forgers of the Place of Sampo). They arrived in Webster’s Corners on Jan. 1, 1905 in a group of 24 single men, none of whom owned anything individually.
Kurrika soon left on a lecture and fund-raising tour, partly to escape the inevitable conflicts that were arising in the new commune, where the men were quickly getting tired of communal poverty.
By July, Kurrika received a message that there were now women at the commune and that he need not return, ending his involvement with Webster’s Corners. Those involved at Webster’s Corners continued to have strong ties to Sointula through wives and families.
This month, Sointula’s remaining Finnish community is getting a special visit from the ‘old country.’ A group of youth participating in Finnish summer theatre wrote and produced a musical called Sointula, about Matti Kurrika’s life, the Sointula colony and the great Finnish socialist experiments of the early 1900s.
The term ‘culture shock’ was invented by a Finnish writer, born in Nanaimo and raised in Sointula, investigating the hardships faced by these adventurous Finns.
The youth group from Masala is coming to Sointula next week to entertain at a conference called “Culture Shock: Utopian Dreams, Hard Realities”.
People from all over the world are coming to tiny Sointula to participate in the conference and see the play. In fact, the conference is entirely sold out.
Val Patenaude is director of the Maple Ridge Museum.