THUNDER BAY – A time capsule sealed in 1909 and set into the foundation of Thunder Bay’s Finnish Labour Temple has been opened, in a bittersweet moment for the city’s Finnish community.
The capsule was recovered in March as workers sorted through the rubble of the iconic building, which was destroyed by fire late last year. Property owner Brad McKinnon handed the capsule over to the Thunder Bay Finnish Canadian Historical Society.
A small crowd of historians, members of the Finnish community, and local leaders were on hand Tuesday morning to see the small copper box opened for the first time in a ceremony at the Finnish Book Store.
Its contents included an edition of the Työkansa, the local newspaper that was Canada’s first in the Finnish language; an American Finnish-language newspaper; a transcript of a speech by Moses Hahl, Työkansa's editor; and a copy of the meeting minutes in which the Port Arthur Finnish Socialist Local decided to build the labour temple.
Decades of oxidation had turned the capsule green, and it had been dented slightly during the retrieval process, but the container performed its duty, with Lakehead University archivist Sara Janes saying the papers emerged from their century-long slumber remarkably well.
“The documents do seem to be in good condition,” she said. “We have material that is paper and documents that are printed on silk. They are a little bit damp, they have a little bit of surface damage, but they’re still very readable and will be very useable and understandable for people.”
Some minor damage like copper stains and mold was likely caused in part by water from this year’s firefighting efforts, she said.
Janes helped unseal the documents Tuesday, and will oversee their handling as they are passed to the university archives, where they’re expected to be available for public viewing, translated, and made available digitally.
The capsule documents will join several hundred boxes of documents from the society already in the archives, where they are available to researchers and the public. The items include meeting minutes, an extensive photograph collection, and interviews with early Finnish immigrants.
The documents offer insights into the immigrant experience, the history of the Bay Street area, and the role of religion, sports, and the arts at the time, Janes said.
Jorma Halonen, vice-chair of the Thunder Bay Finnish Canadian Historical Society, said there were few surprises for him in the capsule, but described the moment he wrested it open as moving.
“It’s quite incredible,” he said. “There is a lot of history that can be recorded, that can be authenticated – otherwise people would be guessing… You actually get an idea of what these people were thinking.”
Halonen said he was relieved to find the documents in as good shape as they were, after initially fearing the time capsule could be lost entirely.
There is one tantalizing question mark still lingering over the capsule – the exact contents of Hahl’s speech, which was given on the occasion of the laying of the Finnish Labour Temple’s cornerstone.
“I’m really interested to see that,” said Janes. “With the newspapers, we can see those elsewhere, they’re not surprises. But the content of the speech will be something that hasn’t been seen since 1909.”
Halonen looks forward to reading and translating the speech, which he expects will reflect the writer’s socialist convictions, shared among the founders of the labour temple.
“They were forward-looking, hopeful,” he said of those founders. “They wanted shorter working hours, the right for women to vote, which Canadian women didn’t have at the time – Finnish women did. They wanted to abolish child labour.”
“Whether the speech is from that perspective, I would hope so. They wanted a better society, particularly for ordinary working people.”
According to society president Saku Pinta, the speech is believed to address topics including the historic task of the working class to overthrow capitalism, anti-militarism, and demands for education of the working class.
“Today is sort of a bittersweet day for [me],” he told those assembled Tuesday. “I once again must acknowledge the tragic loss of what I think we can all agree was a national treasure and a Thunder Bay icon, the Finnish Labour Temple. I’d like to extend to the Finnish community my heartfelt apologies for the loss of this important cultural landmark.”
McKinnon also revealed initial funding has been secured for the rebuild, with plans submitted to the city and construction permits paid.
Tuesday also marked the official kick-off for two projects fundraising to cover the costs of recreating the building’s historic façade, including its unmistakable cupola. McKinnon said the fundraising campaign’s $100,000 goal likely won’t cover the full costs of the restoration, but called the project a crucial step to recover a semblance of the temple’s legacy.
At the Finnish Book Store on Bay Street, residents can purchase original bricks taken from the temple’s façade and imprinted with an image of the building.
They can also contribute to a coffee table-style book intended to record residents’ memories of the building and raise funds. Those interested can leave written remembrances and photographs at the Finnish Book Store, where some photos will be displayed alongside the temple’s famed weigh scale, restored after sustaining heavy damage in the fire.
Kathy Toivonen, a local historian, writer, and artist who has previously covered Finnish culture and history in the area, is working with book store owners Richard and Marlene Koskiniemi on the fundraiser.
“We’re looking for more contemporary history,” she said. “A lot of the really old history has been done before in other books, and there’s a lot at the archives. We want stories from people who are around today.”
The building holds deep meaning and is connected to vivid memories for people here and around the world, she said.
“The reason the idea was even formed was because Richard was saying how many people would come in [to the book store] and say, I remember this, I remember that. They were already telling their stories. He thought, let’s put it in a book so we can share them.”
Rebuilding the cupola and façade is important to the Bay and Algoma neighbourhood’s identity and the local business community, said Halonen, with the historic building a key anchor in attracting people to the area.
With files from Leigh Nunan, TBT News.
Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Finnish-language newspaper included in the time capsule as Canadan Uutiset. In fact, the newspaper was Työkansa. TBnewswatch apologizes for the error.