THUNDER BAY — In the 102 years the Hoito restaurant has operated from the basement of the Finnish Labour Temple in Thunder Bay, it had never missed opening for a day — until the 2020 coronavirus lockdown.
The socialist restaurant’s first year was marked by struggle, as the government had declared Finnish an enemy language, restricting assembly among its speakers. It went on to survive harsh winters, when the loggers who were its main customers lived in camps outside town. It made it through the Great Depression and the Second World War. As the Finnish immigrant population in Thunder Bay declined over the decades (though Thunder Bay still boasts the largest Finnish population per capita in the world outside Finland), the Hoito kept serving its famous Finnish pancakes and other “good meals at a reasonable price.”
Then, in May, a missed loan payment caused the board that runs the 110-year-old heritage building to dissolve. The famous Hoito declared bankruptcy on June 3. And those scrambling to save it say the only way forward for the Finnish Labour Temple is to reopen its doors to the community and take it back to its patron-owned roots.
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On May 20, the membership of the Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay, which manages the building, voted to dissolve after missing an $1,850 loan payment to the Royal Bank of Canada. In a statement, the board says the bank denied its request to defer payment and to renegotiate. Although the business qualified for a $40,000 Canada Emergency Business Account loan through the government, it didn’t qualify through the bank. The Royal Bank of Canada declined to comment on the matter.
Board member Derek Parks says that the bank put the association in a position where its only choices were dissolving or declaring bankruptcy. The restaurant has already declared bankruptcy, but by not following suit, the association can protect its employees in the event that a successor restaurant does open.
“We’re trying to salvage something from this process,” Parks explains. “Liquidation is a slim glimmer [of hope] that something may come from the community or someone else to save the association.”
Insurance alone costs more than $60,000 a year, and food was running nearly half of the restaurant’s costs, says Parks. “Costs kept rising — food and suppliers, the maintenance of the building,” he says. “At the end of the day, we can't be selling pancakes and sausage for 20 bucks a plate, and that's where it was pushing to.”
Organizers agree that the challenges that led to Finlandia’s dissolution can’t be brushed aside. Does the Finnish community have the population to sustain the Finnish Labour Temple? Should the movement’s political or its ethnic roots be its compass for reinvention? Is there a new way forward for the gem of Thunder Bay’s historic Finnish quarter?
Paula Haapanen was the board’s vice-president in the mid-2010s, when it made tough decisions to cut the Hoito’s hours and remove nostalgic items from the menu because they weren’t selling. She believes that the hall has a future but that support from the Finnish community alone can’t ensure it. That’s why she has become a key member of a co-operative organization whose aim is to reopen the Hoito as a collective space for the local community.
“My mom’s an immigrant; my dad’s first-generation Canadian. I was in the Finnish choir. I was in Finnish Sunday School. I was confirmed Finnish Lutheran, but I’m 46 years old,” she says. “There are things that don’t resonate with the younger crowd as much. They’re very proud to be Finnish, and they have passion for the culture, but the drive to gather isn’t there in the same way.”
But the Finnish community has been divided over whether the space should be used by the rest of the community — and whether they want to reignite the labour temple’s socialist mission. Amid this tension, a local woman without Finnish heritage or connection to the organization posted a GoFundMe page calling for donations to keep the restaurant afloat. As of this article’s publication, it has raised $23,500.
“Some of my fondest memories include eating at the Hoito with my Nonna,” Lyndsay Williams wrote “Knowing the Hoito may never recover from the effects of COVID-19 is heartbreaking for me and my family, as well as many other Thunder Bay locals.” (She did not respond to TVO.org’s requests for comment on this story.)
Williams’s GoFundMe will support the co-operative’s mission, but it has had less luck attracting larger donors, which it’ll need if it’s going to survive. The collective estimates that the building is worth $1 million, and its financial plan requires a 35 per cent down payment on a commercial loan.
“I’ll tell you right now, we’re nowhere near,” Haapanen says. “We’ve had people gift $1,000 or $500 and people are giving $10 or $20. Every little bit helps, but it’s not the big money.”
From its launch on Mayday 1918 until 1974, the Hoito operated as a co-operative, fuelling the Finnish community’s ability to keep the rest of the building operating. The lack of funds aside, Haapanen says, the co-operative has evidence of grassroots support for the building to become a community space.
Of 164 respondents to an online survey, four out of five believe the Finnish Labour Temple should belong to the community. Three in four want to maintain the historic restaurant in the basement. Seventy per cent would personally volunteer and fundraise to maintain the space. And half believe the building ought to be governed by the democratic decisions of its members.
“Failure's not an option. I believe in people. The community is going to tell us if this is a viable venture or not,” Haapanen says. “We have to acknowledge and celebrate the Finnish history and the radical labour history. But if we get a thriving, multicultural community hub — to have other ethnic, cultural groups use the space for meetings and for events or neighbourhood yoga classes and maybe have commercial tenant space for smaller grassroots businesses — I see it as a place where different groups can feel like this is a place for them.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.