THUNDER BAY – More than one hundred years of history has gone up in smoke and flame.
Thunder Bay’s iconic Finnish Labour Temple was engulfed in flames on Wednesday night, crews battling a tricky blaze that appears to have started in the upper section of the building, which was undergoing major renovations after new ownership took it over last year.
Derek Parks, a past board member of the former Finlandia Association that owned and operated the building – and its famous ground-floor tenant, the Hoito Restaurant – choked back tears upon arriving at the corner of Bay and Algoma streets, flames erupting through the roof as he watched a century of the city’s culture burn before his eyes.
Parks said it’s symbolic of the past two years, the pandemic forcing the closure and ultimate sale of the financially troubled building.
He crossed his fingers that some of the structure could be saved, though it didn’t look good as crews fought the fire, a pair of aerial ladders attacking from above, the roar of chainsaws cutting through the chilly, smoke filled air as firefighters tore through the roof seeking an angle of attack.
“It’s 120-year-old wood. It’s pretty dry. It’s going to be kind of tough to see what we can salvage. We won’t have those answers for a couple of days, I’m sure,” Parks said.
“Thinking about it, if you’re born and raised in Thunder Bay, it’s part of everyone’s heritage, whether you’re on the north side or south side of town. I was basically raised out in Nolalu and they're all Finns. It’s a very proud community and the history of the Labour Temple – it’s significant, not just for the city, but for the region and across the country. Everyone knows the Hoito and has a story.”
Developer Brad McKinnon bought the building in September 2020 through a bankruptcy process and was in the process of renovating it from top to bottom, planning a mixed-use development that was going to include condo units and the return of the Hoito Restaurant later next year.
“It was really quite an icon for our area,” Parks said.
Firefighters have yet to provide details about the fire, including the potential cause, crews too busy to break to speak to the media.
Dozens of people flocked to the downtown area, crossing flooded, frozen streets to watch the fire burn.
Parks, who hasn’t been active in the new initiative to revitalize the Labour Temple, said it’s tough to watch it all burn down.
“I really hope no one’s hurt and I really hope the owner is going to survive this so we don’t have a relic. This building should be a focus of getting back up in some form as a symbol for this community,” Parks said.