- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

THUNDER BAY, Ontario — This world’s biggest freshwater port has a wild mix of 48 nationalities, including the largest Finnish community outside of Finland.

At the heart of the Finnish community of 15,000 is the locally famous Hoito Restaurant in the Finnish Labour Temple. Built in 1910, the Hoito, meaning “care” in Finnish, is situated in a turreted building, with thin windows and an ancient balcony, that appears like an apparition from an old Finnish film.

Arnold Koivu, 68, and his jovial wife, Eila, 67, meet us in the neat, crowded restaurant for coffee and delicious crepelike Finnish pancakes topped with homemade strawberry sauce and pancake syrup.

The Hoito seats 110 and daily serves 500 to 800 meals. Often a line of locals dragging guests, curious tourists and homesick Finns makes the wait 30 minutes to get a stool at the counter or a seat at wooden tables. It was one of Canada’s first nonsmoking restaurants.

The most expensive breakfast dish is less than $4, and dinner is less than $8. The popular Finnish wieners are less than $6. The Hoito may offer Canada’s cheapest feasting. Amid the clatter of dishes, the Koivus tell Hoito’s story.

In 1918, Finnish bush workers, who labored in the woods from September to March, found little trouble getting a room in the city, but they could not find a decent meal at a fair price. So they bought shares. When the total reached $300, they hired a cook, who had to have bush camp cooking experience, and two waitresses and opened the Hoito in the basement of the labor temple.

From the start, the 25-cent meals were hearty, all you could eat, and served at communal tables seating 12. “When the waitress said ‘It’s all ready, boys,’ they pulled up their chairs and began eating,” Mr. Koivu says. “The Hoito offered pork, chicken, beef stew, vegetables, and they had their own bakery.”

In the early days, the “white Finns” had the Big Finn Hall, with the Hoito, and the “red Finns” (the communists) had a competing restaurant next door in the Little Finn Hall. “They all got along well,” Mr. Koivu says, “but their restaurant failed.”

The Hoito has always been close to the Koivus’ hearts. Mr. Koivu’s father immigrated from Finland in 1924, when he found he could purchase 160 acres for $5 from the Canadian government.

His mother cooked in a bush camp, then came to the Hoito to cook. “Bush workers wanted summer meals equal to the meals they got during winter work time,” Mr. Koivu says.

The couple met at the Hoito and were married upstairs in the Finlandia Club Hall in 1928. His parents did not know each other in Finland, although they lived 60 miles apart.

Later, Eila Koivu was a cashier at the Hoito, where the Koivus met. As a girl, while living in Finland, she skied two miles daily to school and home. “Finns are athletic,” she says, “and they like music and dancing.” She still attends fitness classes.

They, like Mr. Koivu’s parents, were married upstairs at the Finlandia Club, in 1958, and so was their eldest son. As Mr. Koivu says, “I told my sons, if you want a good wife, come to the Hoito. The sons have found fine wives but have drifted away a bit from the Finnish community.”

Thunder Bay’s Finns are self-sufficient. Mrs. Koivu’s mother, 97, never took her Canadian unemployment insurance or her Finnish pension. However, she did agree to collect her Canadian pension and old-age security. She refused to use the free bus pass she obtained at 65. As she said, “I don’t need any help. I’m doing just fine.”

In the 1960s, Hoito’s meals went up to $1, but business at the nonprofit restaurant still boomed, and upstairs the Finnish community center buzzed with activity at its banquets, weddings, Saturday dances and parties.

The day before St. Patrick’s Day is the big Finnish St. Urho’s Day parade. “The Finns always want to outdo the Irish,” Mr. Koivu says. “So the Finns here started St. Urho’s Day. St. Urho killed all the grasshoppers so they wouldn’t eat the grapes in Finland. On that weekend, Finns carry big models of grasshoppers in parades, and there are accordions and music.” All of this despite there being no grapes in Finland.

In 1972, the Finlandia Club gave the club to its younger members; in 1974, the Hoito did the same. The Finns have three churches in town, all Lutheran, and most services are still in Finnish, a language that some say is second in difficulty to Japanese. On weekends, the Finlandia Club sponsors a Finnish language course, dinners and dances, but now it is more a seniors’ group, Mr. Koivu says.

As we walk through Little Finland on Bay Street, we pass the Finnish deli, Finnish hardware with sauna stoves, Finnish travel agents, Finnish bakery, Finnish import shops and the Finnish consulate. Mr. Koivu recalls stories from his youth here and says, “Finns aren’t protesters. We keep to ourselves. You’ll wait a long time for a complaint from a Finn. They play their cards close to their chest.”

In 1991, Mr. Koivu, a retired teacher, and his wife, Eila, took 10 Finnish-language students to Finland to visit Thunder Bay’s sister city, Seinojoki.

The Koivus often visit Finland. Mr. Koivu explains how a retired teacher can afford so much travel: “We stay with relatives.”

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