Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

History General


An Island Utopia

by (author) Paula Wild

Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.
Initial publish date
Oct 2007
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2007
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 1995
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Sointula - it means "harmony" - is a tiny community on Malcolm Island, a short ferry ride from northern Vancouver Island. It was founded at the turn of the century by the Kalevan Kansa Society, a group of Finnish utopians, and Matti Kurikka, their charismatic but impractical leader. Despite serious setbacks, including a disastrous fire in 1903 that killed eleven people, the Finns built a thriving community. Even after the Kalevan Kansa ended, locals were blackballed all along the coast for their fervour in organizing loggers' and fishermen's unions. A fresh wave of utopians arrived in Sointula in the 1960s, and while they were shunned by many residents, some of the older generation recognized in the "hippies" the hopes and dreams of their forefathers.

Paula Wild lived in Sointula for many years. In researching her book, she talked to more than forty residents and translated innumerable Finnish documents and letters.

About the author

Paula Wild has written for British Columbia Magazine, Reader's Digest, the Vancouver Sun, Mariner Life and the Victoria Times-Colonist. She was awarded the BC Historical Federation Certificate of Merit in 1996 for her book Sointula: Island Utopia. She lives in Courtenay, BC.

Paula Wild's profile page

Excerpt: Sointula: An Island Utopia (by (author) Paula Wild)

Free Love & the Bridge Fiasco
IT WAS RAPIDLY BECOMING APPARENT THAT DESPITE the attractiveness of Kurikka's charismatic personality and innovative plans, his inability to transform his ideas into practical action eventually caused his followers to turn against him. Toivo Hiltunen, the Aika press operator in Sointula, had succumbed to Kurikka's heady charm when he heard him speak in Astoria, Oregon, in 1903. Hiltunen wasn't in Sointula long, however, before he became disenchanted both with life on the island and with the visionary who had led him there. To annoy Kurikka, the pressman littered the Aika with frequent and deliberate printing errors.

Misprinted or not, Kurikka's editorials never failed to provoke an emotional response. The motto of the Aika was "Freedom with Responsibility," and Kurikka personally advocated responsible freedom in the area of sexual relations. He chose a May 1904 issue of the journal to formally launch his campaign to alter the traditional roles of marriage.
His interest in marriage and motherhood began many years earlier in Minna Canth's salon; now he was determined to free both men and women from their blind obedience to convention.

"Let us assist women into a position of freedom and responsibility," he wrote. "Let us build marriage on a foundation of ideal love and refuse to acknowledge a marriage which is not centered on love, goodness and tenderness." He urged "Kalevan Kansa men to declare only the rights of love not the chains of marriage" and told women that "they need not be ashamed of motherhood outside of marriage."

Kurikka believed that it was acceptable for men and women to live together without being married as long as they loved each other. Although he believed that sexual activity should not be limited to marriage, he did not approve of casual or promiscuous sex. "A man who lightly indulges in sex," he said, "should have a millstone tied around his
neck and he drowned."

Far ahead of his time, Kurikka was not so much against the institution of marriage as he was opposed to the subservient role of women. He felt that women were treated as pieces of property by their husbands and that all too often marriage resembled a form of slavery rather than a partnership of equals. To those who disagreed with his philosophy he replied, "Marriage and morality are as different as the law and justice, and the church and truth. Just as capitalism appears to protect social organization, and the church to protect truth, so marriage appears to protect morality."

Kurikka's articles on the emancipation of women and sexual relationships outside of marriage generated a great deal of controversy both on and off the island. As was often the case, Kurikka's beliefs did not necessarily reflect the reality of Sointula. On the whole, the members of the colony were opposed to the idea of sexual freedom. They worried that rumours about free love would jeopardize their agreement with the government, which required them to "honour and obey the laws of the land."

Katri Riksman said, "Some believed that free love would produce superior children, though the majority argued that men would not be interested in supporting or raising these children. Although Kurikka had a lady friend on the island, there were no superior children to his credit."

Kurikka did have the support of the younger, unmarried men, and no one could ignore the fact that women were attracted to him. Women always made up a large part of the audience when he lectured, and comments about his animal magnetism and glowing good looks were common. Women's interest in Kurikka had been noted even in Australia, where a fellow Finn noted that "Kurikka was divorced, he liked women and women liked him. Their husbands however had other ideas and his frequent affairs caused constant friction."

Eventually Lundell, the Lutheran preacher from Extension, formally complained to the provincial government that, "Matti Kurikka is the leader of a socialist and atheist element and he personally advocates Free Love. All of his actions are moulding Sointula in that direction."

Concerned about the financial aspects of the government's agreement with the Finns, the Lieutenant Governor commissioned Vancouver lawyer Henry Sherwood to investigate Malcolm Island under the provisions of the Public Inquiries Act. Sherwood was instructed to determine if the Finns were making a bona fide effort to settle the island, or were just planning to harvest the timber and then leave.

Unaware that the government's concerns were economic rather than sexual, Kurikka attempted to prove that he wasn't promoting universal divorce by telling the Victoria Daily Colonist, "The state of marriage has existed before there was any church and it will continue to exist even when slave-like dogmas have disappeared from civilized nations."

He was more candid in the Aika. "Because of their dirty imaginations people believe that all sexual activity outside of
marriage is criminal. They believe that sexual passion is animalistic and must be ignored."

Kurikka's biggest opponent over the role of women and sexual relations outside of marriage was his former best friend, Austin Makela. The two men had never mended the rift that occurred after the fire, when Kurikka demanded that the Kalevan Kansa expel his slanderers. Instead the chasm between Kurikka and Makela deepened, and while they had disagreed before, now they argued constantly. Angry and frustrated over the foundering of his own marriage, Makela complained that, "as a single man Kurikka is interested in all women and would like to see every marriage dissolve." He accused Kurikka of promoting a three-way marriage, where a woman would live with one man for intellectual companionshipn and another for physical activity.

The tension between Kurikka and Makela filtered into the community, and soon everyone was arguing about free love and other topics as well. On the whole, life on the island was far more difficult than life in the outside world. Hard work was not yet rewarded with wages, and the food left much to be desired. Salt fish and potatoes were the mainstay of the diet, and for months at a time there was no sugar and only occasionally stewed prunes for dessert. Doing without luxuries was one thing, but doing without the bare necessities was another. Less dedicated members bickered among themselves, accusing one and then the other of eating too much or working too little. And even though Kurikka had assured the Kalevan Kansa that he had "hands as calloused as any," Matti Halminen noted that while everyone else performed heavy manual labour, "Kurikka did not seem to have any duties except for his talks."

Inevitably, some of the quarrels evolved into lawsuits between the company and its members. Lili Anderson - probably a widow who had become involved with one of the single men - felt that her reputation had been destroyed during the many arguments about free love, and requested compensation for damages to her good name, as well as the return of her membership fee. A committee elected to arbitrate the matter instructed the Kalevan Kansa to return the $450 that Anderson had invested in the colony. Herman Hantula, who had lost most of his family in the fire, asked for the return of his two horses and farm equipment. The committee refused his request, on the grounds that the company had spent more feeding the horses than they were worth.

The Kalevan Kansa was still in desperate need of skilled workers and most of all, in need of capital to make the colony viable. Not only was neither forthcoming, but Kurikka's mercurial nature and inability to face reality was becoming an increasing problem. On one occasion he begged the colonists to donate their rings, watches and earrings so he could convert them to cash; on another he returned from a trip to Vancouver with a portable lap organ instead of the expected food and supplies. The colonists' idealism was wearing thin, and while a certain amount of eccentricity had been overlooked and even expected before, now it was unacceptable.

A lot of energy and money was being expended with little in the way of rewards. Logging operations had increased but were still not creating much revenue. Attempts at stock breeding had been unsuccessful; a few cows had even died over the winter of 1903-04. The Finns had a fishing licence for Rivers Inlet but didn't have enough nets, and even though the government had given the Kalevan Kansa permission to build a cannery at Knight Inlet, there was no money to do so. More fields were being cleared, but so far potatoes were the only crop worth mentioning.

To raise some cash, Kurikka had a collection of his and other colonists' poems published in Vancouver. Titled Kalevan Kansan Sointuja I and II (Kalevan Kansa Songs of Harmony), the two slim volumes were filled with idealistic offerings such as The Kalevan Kansa March, Malcolm Island Our Beautiful Homeland, Leave The Old Ways Behind, and Our Idealism Is Saved. Kurikka took copies of the books with him on his speaking tours, where he devoted a portion of each lecture to reading the poems aloud and singing them to the tunes of traditional Finnish hymns. Altogether he sold 2500 copies. Although he swore that he made a full accounting to the company, there were rumours that most, if not all, of the money went into his own pocket.

Meanwhile, preparations for the construction of the bridges in Vancouver had revealed major discrepancies in the original estimate. Both bridges featured 55-metre (180-foot) arches and the bridge over the Capilano River required a span of the same length supported on an 11-metre (36-foot) buttress. The bridges required exceptionally strong foundations, an item totally overlooked in Kurikka's bid. Another oversight was the fact that all building materials had to be transported over a kilometre from the dock, making it necessary to purchase a team of horses and a sleigh. Also, only a small sum had been allowed for miscellaneous items such as bolts and nails. This cost alone came to $1600. Even though the municipality of North Vancouver contributed $600 for additional supplies, the colony's total bill for extra work and materials came to $3000.

Everyone was involved in the construction of the bridges. Those who remained in Sointula sawed lumber and made do with even less as the colony struggled to transport the lumber and feed the men working in Vancouver. Families were separated for months at a time, and in an effort to meet the September 1904 deadline the Kalevan Kansa waived membership fees and advertised for additional workers in the Atka.

Instead of leading to "other contracts worth tens of thousands of dollars," as Kurikka had promised, the construction project required close to 9000 hours of uncompensated labour. One hundred men worked on the bridges for four months, receiving no wages and paying their expenses out of their own pockets. Worst of all, thousands of board feet of Malcolm Island's best timber went into the project. At one point Kurikka realized his mistake and encouraged the men to strike, but by this time he had lost his credibility and no one would listen to him.

Near the end of September the bridges were completed, and Kurikka and the others returned to Sointula. There was no respite for the weary workers though, for as soon as Kurikka set foot on the island the topic of free love was again brought up. This time Makela openly accused Kurikka of having an affair with his wife, Elli, and blamed Kurikka for all his marital problems. Kurikka admitted that he was a close friend of Makela's "civilized, honourable, and beautiful" wife but denied that they were having an affair. "Elli confided in me that she was going to ask Makela for a divorce and that she wanted to marry another comrade whom she loved, but that man is not me." Arguments between the two men became vicious, and the board of directors suggested that they both leave the island for a while to cool off. Neither would go, so in an effort to resolve the situation once and for all, the board called a general meeting.

Other titles by Paula Wild

Related lists